TACOMA, Wash. — University of Washington researchers studying treatment options for narcotics-using soldiers kept hearing about a new drug when they surveyed military service members in 2011.
A drug of choice for soldiers trying to get high without getting caught by routine Army tests, they learned, was synthetic cannabis. It came up so frequently in conversations with soldiers that the UW researchers actually changed their study to account for its popularity.
They concluded in a study to be published in July by the journal Addictive Behaviors that narcotics-using soldiers were twice as likely to use synthetic cannabis as they were to try marijuana.
The appeal of synthetic cannabis, also known as spice, is the perception that it’s less detectable than marijuana on the regular urinalysis tests active-duty soldiers take.
“Spice might be one of those drugs that is more attractive to those populations if they’re interested in getting high and trying to get around these tests,” said UW associate professor Denise Walker, the study’s lead author.
She’s part of a research team that received a Defense Department grant to study ways the military might encourage troops with substance abuse problems to seek treatment. Some soldiers avoid treatment because they fear they will face discipline for admitting to substance abuse.
The UW team is in the final stages of completing the parent study on treatment programs. The report on synthetic cannabis is an offshoot from the main substance abuse study.
Researchers collected their information through interviews with 368 active-duty soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord who expressed an interest in talking about alcohol or drug abuse problems.
About one third of the participants said they had used illicit substances within the previous 90 days. Of those, 38 percent had used synthetic cannabis – twice as many as had used marijuana.
“Spice definitely is an alternative to marijuana and soldiers are using it” to avoid military urinalysis tests, said UW social work research coordinator Tom Walton.
The UW study began in a year when JBLM experienced several high-profile crimes that were connected to synthetic drugs.
In one, a 19-year-old AWOL soldier stabbed a woman to death outside of her Kirkland apartment. Dakota Wolf later admitted that he was using spice when he killed Scarlett Paxton in 2011. He is now serving a 20-year prison sentence.
The other incident involved a manufactured drug called bath salts. Sgt. David Stewart, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was taking the drug in April 2011 when he murdered his wife on Interstate 5 and then killed himself. The couple’s 5-year-old son later was found dead in their home.
Those crimes made identifying users of spice and bath salts a high priority for commanders at JBLM in 2011 and 2012. Commanders received briefings on the new drugs, and the Army has developed tests to identify users.
“It’s very much on the military’s radar and they’re doing everything they can to prevent spice use,” Walker said.
JBLM has seen a declining number of positive drug tests since 2011. Three years ago, the base recorded 1,933 positive urinalysis tests. The number declined to 1,123 last year, according to data provided by JBLM’s I Corps.
A positive drug test initiates automatic discipline in the Army that could lead to career-ending repercussions. Soldiers can seek treatment for substance abuse issues, but if they falter, they would be subject to discipline.
Walton said researchers initially asked soldiers about substances such as alcohol, cannabis and prescription drugs. They started including spice in their questions when because soldiers kept bringing it up.
Walker said respondents who admitted using spice showed signs that they became physically dependent on the drug.
“They have a hard time quitting,” she said.
She said the study’s findings could be applied to other populations who are subjected to routine drug-testing.
She also said health care providers should ask about spice because of the potential for users to become dependent on the drug and the uncertainty over whether urinalysis tests can catch the latest varieties.
“If it’s a drug that’s not necessarily reliably caught in a drug test, it’s really important for health care providers to know to assess for it and ask about it,” she said.