Synthetic marijuana widely used at Naval Academy, some midshipmen say

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; A01

A synthetic form of marijuana is widely used at the U.S. Naval Academy because it cannot be detected in routine drug tests, according to several former midshipmen who have been removed from campus for using or possessing the substance.

Since its introduction at the academy last year, synthetic marijuana has become popular among rank-and-file midshipmen and on the football and wrestling teams, the former midshipmen said. Some isolated corners of the historic Annapolis campus, they said, have become well-known gathering spots for smoking it.

Synthetic marijuana is an herbal potpourri sprayed with chemicals that, when smoked, produces mood-altering effects. It is illegal in at least 12 states, although not in Maryland, and is prohibited in the U.S. military, including at its service academies.

The popularity of synthetic marijuana has spawned a major investigation within the academy that has led to the expulsion of eight midshipmen, including one last week. Several of those caught up in the probe say they expect the number of midshipmen who will be "separated" - the term academy officials use for expulsion - to reach more than a dozen. A substantial number of others have used synthetic marijuana but have not been caught, these former midshipmen say.

Academy leaders acknowledge that the four-month-old investigation into synthetic marijuana use is ongoing and that more expulsions are expected. In some cases, expelled midshipmen are required to repay the government for their education.

"The Naval Academy continues to actively investigate suspected illicit drug use," Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, superintendent of the academy, said in a statement. The academy "has been and will continue to be transparent in disclosing the results of this ongoing investigation. If and when there is sufficient evidence and testimony of alleged drug use by additional midshipmen, they will be processed for separation."

The descriptions in this story are based on interviews with eight midshipmen, five of whom have left the academy because of the synthetic marijuana scandal and three of whom are still on campus. Two of them said they had never used the substance but knew others who had. All spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about sensitive matters under investigation.

Use spreading in military

The use of synthetic marijuana, which often is called "spice" after a popular brand name, is rising at an alarming rate across the military, commanders say. It cannot be detected in the random urine tests that are a routine part of military life.

Synthetic marijuana is sold in head shops and gas stations. It often is marketed as herbal incense, but at a far higher price than most incenses - typically $20 or $30 for a few grams. Midshipmen who have smoked it describe a "buzz" akin to a high from marijuana.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has banned five compounds found in the product, and Virginia's legislature recently passed a measure to criminalize it. No other state in the Washington area has done so. The bill has not been signed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The Navy's Atlantic and Pacific fleets disciplined 113 sailors for use or possession of synthetic marijuana in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. At least 180 sailors have faced allegations of using it since, according to Lt. Alana Garas, a Navy spokeswoman. Synthetic marijuana busts netted 28 sailors at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., and 15 crew members on the aircraft carrier George Washington in 2009 and 16 sailors on the amphibious assault ship Bataan this month.

The Air Force disciplined 260 of its personnel over allegations involving synthetic marijuana in 2010. Five cadets have been separated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and about 28 others remain under investigation for spice use, officials said.

West Point has not expelled any cadets over synthetic marijuana.

At the typical residential college, casual weekend drug use is common.

But at the Naval Academy, midshipmen's daily lives are scheduled from dawn till lights-out. Former midshipmen said they turned to synthetic marijuana for release.

"You know, your days begin at 5:30 and they end at 11:30 at night," said one former midshipman who was expelled from the Class of 2014. "Basically, spice took me into another world. It released so much of the stress off of me."

Current and former midshipmen say synthetic marijuana appeared at the academy around March 2010 when a senior brought some to campus and began selling it to underclassmen. Any midshipman smoking synthetic marijuana risked expulsion - the Navy banned it that month - but its popularity continued to grow, they said.

"That was the one way that we knew that we could get that high," said a former midshipman who was expelled from the class of 2012.

Under the academy's zero-tolerance policy on drugs, midshipmen are expelled from the student body - known as the Brigade of Midshipmen - for drugs at a rate of about 10 a year, said spokesman Mike Brady. LSD was discovered at the academy in 1995, and 40 midshipmen were implicated in a 1979 pot bust.

"It's not what the brigade stands for as a group, as a service," said Sean Fitzmaurice, 23, a senior from Hingham, Mass., who serves as brigade commander. "We hold ourselves, and we are held, to a much higher standard here at the academy."

Fitzmaurice, who was made available for an interview by the academy leadership, said he knows no one who smokes synthetic marijuana.

Sneaking in spice

But when synthetic marijuana arrived, it swiftly became the drug of choice, current and former midshipmen said. Students ordered it from online retailers or arranged shipments from friends. It sometimes arrived inside hollowed-out books, empty Pringles chips cans or water bottles with removable bases. Midshipmen hid the drugs in their cars, inside their sports lockers or within the homes of their sponsors, community members who volunteer to provide a home away from home.

Midshipmen found remote spots to smoke. One off-campus apartment became a notorious synthetic marijuana party house; current and former midshipmen say it remains in operation. The dwelling is off limits to Navy command because it is private property.

"I would just smoke it at night, around 9:30 or 10, and go pass out in my rack," or bed, said a current midshipman who said he is under investigation for synthetic marijuana. "And I'd wake up in the morning just fine."

He said the habit did not impede his studies. But a former student recalled some of the brigade dwelling in a haze induced by synthetic marijuana.

"People would come into class high," he said. "They couldn't even focus; they couldn't write down what was going on."

The current and former midshipmen say the investigation began in October because of a tip from a midshipman whose girlfriend had threatened to report him if he didn't come clean.

Navy investigators seized a sheet of notebook paper, later leaked to the Navy Times, that laid out an apparent plan for a synthetic marijuana ring. Handwritten notes listed 18 potential customers and designs for the off-campus party house to be outfitted with a lava lamp, big-screen TV, "stocked fridge," dance floor, strobe lights and a "giant bong."

The inquiry moved slowly at first. It was hard to pin blame on midshipmen who weren't caught red-handed.

A break in investigation

That changed one December night when a midshipman smoking synthetic marijuana began having seizures. A midshipman who was passing by resuscitated him. Someone dialed 911. When rescuers arrived, one member of the group admitted smoking the substance.

"It was in everyone's best interest," said the friend who made the admission, who has been expelled.

The investigation accelerated. Academy leaders began stepping up "health and wellness checks," a protocol that allows them to search midshipmen's rooms. Cars and lockers were searched, testimony taken, names dropped.

Some midshipmen were caught in possession of synthetic marijuana or admitted smoking it. Others were disciplined based primarily on the word of others.

Some expelled midshipmen say the investigation has been less than fair. One says he never actually smoked synthetic marijuana but was disciplined for allegedly doing so. Others contend investigators have treated star athletes with lenience. The brigade hasn't forgotten the case of Marcus Curry, a standout football player who was allowed to remain at the academy in the 2009-10 school year after failing a drug test for marijuana.

"They push them under the rug," said one former student who was on the wrestling team.

Academy officials say every case has been handled fairly. They say that athletes have been investigated and expelled and that the small number of confirmed synthetic marijuana cases is not confined to any one team.

"Our standards are clear - spice has no place at USNA or in the naval service," said Miller, the superintendent. "Our purpose is to produce leaders, and as such, we will not graduate or commission any illicit drug user - this type of character flaw is simply incompatible with leading the sailors of the 21st century."

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