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El Paso mom campaigns against drug linked to sailor's death

EL PASO, Texas — Adam R. Hernandez, 28, had been in the U.S. Navy for eight years and planned on making a career out it.

He was fearless and full of life, eager to go skydiving, scuba diving, or kayak shark fishing in Hawaii where he was stationed.

But on June 20, Hernandez took his life, likely the result of his smoking Spice, a product that is sold as incense but is becoming known nationally as a potentially dangerous drug that has some of the same effects as synthetic marijuana.

Spice paraphernalia was found in Hernandez's home in Hawaii. A groundskeeper found his body on a soccer field on base.

In spite of her pain over the loss of her oldest son, El Paso educator Ruth M. Rivas feels compelled to share his story and "a put a face" to her message about this dangerous product.

She has launched a website and campaign, "Spice is Not Nice," in memory of her son.

"Adam loved to live. I know Adam wouldn't have done this on his own. He was always reading books and giving advice to people. He always wanted to help people. This is my way of making sure he is still helping other people," said Rivas, with tears in her eyes. "I'm making sure that Adam didn't die in vain."

Diana Apodaca, public information officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration, is grateful that Rivas is willing to share her son's story. Apodaca and other DEA agents are incorporating his story into their presentations for Red Ribbon Week this week.

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"We're grateful that she's willing to bring a human aspect to it," she said. "We tell kids 'drugs are bad' and they know the agents are going to say that. But (through Adam's story) we have evidence. What she is doing is very brave and emotionally very hard. But she's willing to do this because of the love of her son ... devoting her life to telling others. She's a wonderful lady we have met through some unfortunate circumstances."

Rivas, a librarian at Robert R. Rojas Elementary, said the last time she talked to her son was on the phone a few weeks after Mother's Day.

"He was talking about wanting to re- enlist in the Navy and trying to be an officer," she said. "And he wanted to do it on a significant day like the Fourth of July."

Hernandez, a machinist's mate first class, had been trained at the Naval Nuclear Training Command in Goose Creek, S.C., and Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit in Ballston, N.Y., and wanted to continue in that line of service.

His calls home were less frequent over the past year and he sometimes seemed angry or agitated on the phone. But Rivas never suspected he was doing any kind of drug, much less that he was addicted to something like Spice.

"I know there's drug testing in the military," she said. "And I thought if he had been doing something, I would have heard about it."

The mother of three had only heard of Spice once before her son's death.

Spice is the slang name for a mix of herbs laced with chemicals and marketed under different names. It is sometimes marketed as potpourri or incense and is labeled, "not for human consumption."

"You can find it under different names and with pictures of cartoons," Rivas said. "One of them is Scooby Doo. Can you believe it? They are trying to pull in the kids."

Since her son's death, Rivas has done a lot of research, discovering that Spice is a serious issue for military branches. There are several videos about the dangers of Spice by the Navy on YouTube.

On the Army's official website, a 2010 article quotes an Army official saying that Spice has become a widespread problem throughout the service. It is often smoked by soldiers because it can't be detected in urine tests, can be less expensive than traditional marijuana and is easy to purchase.

The article states that some commanders have made it off limits for their soldiers to purchase or use on or off duty.

Rivas has contacted officials with Aliviane, the DEA and the Naval Academy about her willingness to speak on the dangers of the drug.

"This is not just for kids," she said. "It's for parents and the military and for everybody. That's why I want everybody to know. I want to make people aware, to not even try it."

Apodaca said Spice is a nationwide problem.

"It's an issue because it's being marketed as if they're legal, so it's OK," she said. "And it's made people think because it's made in a lab, it's safer. But they're not. It's more dangerous than the drug they mimic."

In July, DEA agents seized more than 6,800 packages of synthetic drugs and 31 containers of bath salts, as part of Operation Log Jam. The operation focused on illegal substances that are disguised as fertilizer, potpourri and incense.

In New Mexico, more than 56,000 packages of Spice and 9,000 containers of bath salts were confiscated.

According to the DEA, the drugs are not specifically prohibited in the Controlled Substance Act, but the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 allows the drugs to be treated as illegal if chemical tests prove they are similar to banned controlled substances.

Spice doesn't discriminate when it comes to age, Apodaca said.

"Unfortunately, it's between the ages of 18 and 24 that are primarily abusing it," Apodaca said. "But it is marketed toward our youth. Unfortunately, it's a new problem that we are trying to get the word out about, especially to parents. When they see the packages at their home, they need to not overlook it. Education is key."

The effects of this synthetic drug are dangerous. They can include vomiting, increased heart rate, temporary paralysis, seizures and even paranoid delusion, depression and hallucinations.

At its worst, it can lead to heart attacks or as in Hernandez's case, lead to thoughts of suicide.

In the past few weeks, Rivas has made several presentations and said she often cries while talking about her son. She said this is her way of coping.

"It is hard," she said. "I still cry and who knows how long ... but I just can't sit back and do nothing because to me that's worse. I would rather talk about it and help other people."

Leslie Hudson Sanchez, a parent who heard Rivas speak recently, was so touched by the presentation, she posted about Rivas and her website on her Facebook page.

"I shed a tear or two for her loss of her son who never did drugs and ended up using and died. ....This is for all the parents out there that have kids and parents who want to know what new drugs are out there that you don't want your kids to use. Educate yourself to help your child and know what they talk about," Sanchez wrote.

Sanchez added, "Her story is so sad and I don't know how she had the strength to stand in front of us all and tell us her story ... she has so much strength and I look up to her for speaking up for her son and sharing her experience and spreading the word of this drug and what can happen to even the smartest kids that have both their parents."

Rivas has returned to her job but she says she wishes she could partner with an organization or business that would allow her to devote her time completely to sharing Adam's story.

"My passion has always been education," she said. "And I am still an educator. But my message is different now."

mcortes@elpasotimes.com
 

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