At Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, the Drug Demand Reduction office, in conjunction with 633rd Security Forces Squadron law enforcement, hopes to educate the Joint Base Langley-Eustis community about this new, quickly-growing threat to Airmen and Soldiers alike.
“Synthetic drugs are a new and prevalent threat to our Service members,” said Cathy Heyward, Drug Demand Reduction program manager. “Since the drugs are so new, many Airmen and Soldiers at JBLE might think they can get away with using these substances, but they can really damage a career.”
Since 2013, every U.S. Air Force base has the ability to test for synthetic drugs, and the rules aren’t the same as they might be in the civilian sector, explained Heyward.
“A lot of vendors selling synthetic drugs change a chemical or two in order to sneak it by the law, calling it ‘incense’ and labelling it ‘not intended for consumption,’” said Heyward. “These little tricks don’t fly here, however. We test for any chemical that induces mind-altering affects, so if you take these drugs, you will be caught.”
Once tested positive, an Airman can expect any punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In 2012, one Airman was discovered using and distributing spice to other Airmen and was subsequently discharged after an investigation.
While this might not be the case for all Airmen, Heyward said such punishment is not uncommon.
“We don’t want our members to lose their careers because of this drug,” said Heyward. “We understand many people in the community don’t understand the drugs, though, so hopefully with the right education we can prevent any synthetic drug trends at JBLE.”
To enforce the goal of education, the Drug Enforcement Administration provides all information currently available on synthetic drugs. The two most used and abused synthetic drugs are synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, more commonly known as “spice” and “bath salts,” respectively. Spice is usually intended to replicate the effects of marijuana, and bath salts more closely resemble cocaine.
Both drugs, no matter what variety or “brand,” are illegal for Service members to use according to the UCMJ. Outside of legal issues, these drugs also carry some serious health concerns.
Spice’s psychological and physiological symptoms resemble those of marijuana. Giddiness, relaxed moods, and hallucinations are the usual desired effects of spice; however users should also expect paranoia, panic attacks, vomiting, headaches and increased agitation.
“The effects of spice have not been documented fully, and there are some concerning examples of the more extreme side effects of the drug,” explained Heyward. “Increased blood pressure and heart rate due to spice have been linked to a few heart attack cases, so investigation into these drugs could lead to more disturbing news.”
With the ever-increasing variety of spice on the market, many users have no idea what they are putting in their body. Some chemicals used in the drugs could cause allergy attacks, or could be poisonous, said Heyward.
Additionally, Air Force Medical Operations Agency studies have shown that spice “appears to be stored in the body for a long time,” so long-term effects may become another health concern.
Bath salts are arguably more dangerous than spice, as their effects are similar to amphetamines, cocaine, LSD and MDMA, which usually have more drastic negative effects. Bath salts induce the same effects as spice, albeit a few more side effects. In addition to the list of spice side-effects, bath salts can also cause depression, suicidal thoughts, seizures, nose bleeds, sweating, chest pains and reduced motor control.
Heyward said there is nothing to gain and everything to lose when using synthetic drugs in the military, and she hopes she never has to see a Service member deal with these substances.
“I feel safe knowing our Service members are always on alert, ready to face any challenge,” said Heyward. “It would be a shame to have that image tarnished because a [Service member] decides to make one bad decision, whether intentional or not. I hope I can prevent this as much as possible, but I trust our military members to always do the right thing and keep that image clear in my mind.”