HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — Though it's been illegal at Hill Air Force Base for several years, synthetic marijuana is now part of a group of drugs that airmen will be tested for at random times throughout their careers.
The Department of Defense recently expanded its zero tolerance policy for the use of illicit drugs to include synthetic marijuana, commonly known as "spice."
As a result, the drug is now included in a panel of drugs that is automatically tested for during Hill's random drug testing program.
Prior to the new testing, which began in earnest at the beginning of 2014, synthetic marijuana was only tested for at Hill upon the request of a commander, the Office of Special Investigations or Security Forces.
"Typically, that would occur during an investigation when an individual was suspected of using (synthetic marijuana)," said Col. Craig Rice, commander of Hill's 75th Medical Group.
Though testing for the drug is new, synthetic marijuana has been illegal at Hill in both an abstract and objective sense for years.
According to Air Force Instruction 44-121, paragraph 3.5.6, the service prohibits "the knowing use of any intoxicating substance, other than the lawful use of alcohol or tobacco products, that is inhaled, injected, consumed, or introduced into the body in any manner to alter mood or function."
In addition to the Air Force code, the base also released an installation-wide policy letter in November 2009 declaring the use of synthetic marijuana by airmen illegal.
Rice said airmen will be tested for synthetic marijuana (as well as other drugs) on a random basis with a rate of once per year.
Civilians are tested upon special request and in cases where reasonable suspicion exists. Those requests are worked through civilian personnel, civilian legal office and Occupational Medicine Service.
Lt. Col. Thom Rogers, staff judge advocate with Hill's 75th Air Base Wing, said the use of synthetic marijuana can be charged as either a violation of the Air Force's rule on mind-altering substances other than tobacco and alcohol, or as a violation for use of a controlled substance.
"Because not all (synthetic marijuana) is made of the same chemicals, we would rely on laboratory testing to tell us whether the spice in question was a controlled substance," Rodgers said.
Rice said no airmen at Hill have tested positive for synthetic marijuana since the new testing began.
Military officials say the new testing is meant to put additional emphasis on the illegality of the designer drug.
"The message we're getting out now is that when you participate in our random urinalysis program, synthetic marijuana products will now be tested along with our other drugs," said Army Lt. Col. Tom Martin. "It's been known in the general population, both in the medical community and various media reports, that synthetic marijuana drug use is a serious health concern."
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, synthetic marijuana contains cannabinoid compounds that act on the same cell receptors as THC, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana.
But some of those compounds bind more strongly to the receptors, which could lead to a much more powerful and unpredictable effect. Because the chemical composition of many synthetic marijuana products is unknown, it's likely that some varieties also contain substances that could cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect, the NIDA says.
The military also randomly tests all service members for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and other drugs in the amphetamine class, including methamphetamines and Ecstasy.
The test also looks for codeine and morphine, oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, Vicodin, and different diazepines, such as Valium and Xanax.