As the surgeon general of the Navy, I am in awe of the young sailors and Marines who serve so gallantly. My most solemn days are those when I see a shipmate fall from wounds or illness. I also have the solemn task on occasion to review the case of a vibrant sailor or Marine who played Russian roulette with synthetic drugs such as “spice” or “bath salts” and lost, costing them their career, future and possibly life.

Sadly, this is no different from the real game where a round eventually chambers, and all is lost.

The issues that keep me up at night are the ones that have the most impact on personnel readiness and our ability to help sailors and Marines meet their missions. For me, undoubtedly the prevalence and growing popularity of synthetic forms of drugs like marijuana, the most common of which are spice and, in more recent months, bath salts, is one of those issues. These products are enough of a concern in our society that the federal government placed a ban on the sale of these man-made designer compounds earlier this month.

The U.S. military represents a microcosm of our much larger population and in many ways strives to be a reflection of the society we serve, so we share many of the same health and safety issues as the general population, including the increased use of these dangerous and debilitating drugs — which not only affect our service members’ health, but also our readiness as a military force. For nearly a year now, Navy leaders have taken a multitiered approach to combating this escalating issue in our forces, and with our partners in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Naval Personnel Command and throughout our naval enterprise, we have made progress in deterring and detecting use.

The challenge remains though, as these drugs are easy to obtain and are falsely marketed by manufacturers as a safe way to get high while avoiding drug detection. It is important for sailors and Marines to know that despite manufacturer claims, we can and are testing for these drugs.

The chemicals found in these drugs are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and no two batches are alike, meaning it is nearly impossible to determine the drug’s potency. Most packaging clearly reads, “Not for human consumption,” and that is for good reason. Military and civilian health professionals continue to learn more about the negative health effects of synthetic drug use, and the data are alarming.

Bath salts are essentially chemically engineered products meant to stimulate the central nervous system — similar to drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and Ecstasy.

Detrimental effects of the drug, which is also marketed as “plant food” or “herbal incense,” include but are not limited to extreme paranoid delusions and hallucinations, anxiety, agitation, aggression, tremors, seizures and dysphoria.

Unlike marijuana, the synthetic chemicals in spice-type products are more potent to the brain and other organs because they bind themselves more permanently to receptors. Spice could have multiple unknown chemicals including harmful metal residues, with unknown potency potentially five to 200 times more potent than the THC in marijuana. Users are also experimenting by combining different products, which can dramatically change or increase the effects. Rapid tolerance in some users can lead to increased dosage and addiction, either physical or psychological. According to the DEA, increased use of spice and other synthetics has led to a surge in emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers.


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