YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — In the aftermath of a major drug bust involving sailors from a 7th Fleet ship last year, Navy leaders came up with a new approach to drug testing.

The fleet already used random urinalysis to detect drugs. Being overseas, where any crime can stain U.S.-host nation relations, the fleet tested more sailors than the Navy requires.

But, investigators learned, the random tests were more predictable than they expected. Sailors were guessing patterns to predict when testing was less likely. Others bought products over the Internet that promised to flush their system and reduce the likelihood of detection.

After the drug bust, officials decided to crack down and make random testing truly random.

“That ship probably saved us many sailors,” said 7th Fleet Command Master Chief Ashley Smith. “A bad thing was beneficial.”

Gone are the days of groups being tested at predictable times, such as in the morning or early in the month, officials say. Sailors now are notified at any time that their number is up — tests can be done throughout the day, in the evening or on weekends — and are led directly to a testing place where an observer makes sure nothing but urine enters the bottle.

“There’s no chance for anybody to introduce anything” into the sample, he said. “We’re sending the signal: ‘You never know when I’m going to tell you to go do urinalysis.’”

The Navy began a zero-tolerance program about 25 years ago that dictates any drug use is grounds for a discharge.

In addition to urinalysis, the Navy combats drug use with educational programs to deglamorize drugs and show the negative physical and mental consequences of drug use, said Chief Petty Officer Ernest Woodruff, the fleet alcohol and drug control officer.

But fear of getting caught is most effective, he said.

“If they’re using drugs, they’re going to get caught,” he said. “There is no room in today’s Navy for people who use drugs. We have learned that the best detection is an aggressive urinalysis program.”

In fiscal year 2004, which ended in October, the fleet tested 28 percent of its sailors each month. The Navy requires only 10 percent to be checked, Woodruff said.

In the first quarter of the current year, after the drug busts last year, the testing rate rose to 33 percent each month.

Newcomers entering a command are tested quickly, and entire units can be tested en masse up to five times a year, said Chief Petty Officer Kevin D. Fuller, urinalysis program coordinator for the 7th Fleet staff aboard the USS Blue Ridge.

Despite the greater numbers tested, the numbers testing positive have dropped — an encouraging sign, Woodruff said (see accompanying box).

The urinalysis detects any drug on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s highest controlled-substance list. It also is a launching point for investigators. When one sailor comes up positive, investigators will question his or her friends and colleagues. One positive can lead to several arrests.

Navy investigators have become more proactive since the cases last year. Investigators already search ships for drugs; they now look for products associated with drug use, such as herbs that claim to fool urine tests, Smith said.

“We learned that sailors had access to a lot of products on the Internet,” he said.

The testing process also is more carefully controlled now, Fuller said. After a computer generates a random list of names, sailors selected are told almost immediately and led to the test site.

They can’t drink water to influence the results or sneak a substitute urine sample into the testing area. They’re escorted by a master-at-arms and carefully observed providing the sample.

The strict procedures and severe approach to drug prevention is not a sign things are worse than in the past, Smith said. They’re extra preventions to keep the Navy from losing its sailors.

“We don’t want them to fail,” he said. “If people believe they’ll get caught they might decide it’s not worth the chance. You don’t ever know if, when you come to work, you’ll have to pee in a bottle.”

Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

Drug policy backed with prosecution

According to Navy spokesmen and investigators, several drug cases have been prosecuted on 7th Fleet ships based in Yokosuka in the past several months.

In mid-2004, seven sailors aboard the USS Vincennes were convicted of drug violations.

Late last year, 14 sailors from the USS Chancellorsville were charged, although some of those cases are pending. One sailor was arraigned on charges of possessing and using Ecstasy and the feline tranquilizer ketamine, obstructing justice and intimidating a witness. He will be tried in a court-martial next month.

This year, seven sailors assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk were charged with drug possession. Six were reduced in rank, received 45 days of restriction and extra duties and forfeited half a month’s pay for two months. One sailor received 12 months’ confinement, reduction in rate to E-1, forfeiture of two-thirds pay for 12 months and a bad-conduct discharge.

Japanese police also have made some arrests, according to the Navy, but have not formally turned the cases over to Navy investigators or charged the individuals.

There are more than 12,000 sailors assigned to the fleet, Navy officials say.

— Stars and Stripes

Positive results

Even as the Navy increases the numbers of sailors tested for drugs in the 7th Fleet, the numbers testing positive have declined, officials say.

In fiscal year 2002 there were 111 positives; in 2003 there were 82; in 2004 there were 51. Projected out from the first quarter, fiscal 2005 will have 44.

Among those busted, the most common drug detected is marijuana, which appears about five times more often than other drugs, said Chief Petty Officer Ernest Woodruff, the fleet alcohol and drug control officer. There has been a steady increase in designer drugs such as MDMA, or Ecstasy, he added.

Those busted are most often young, first-term enlisted sailors, although they come from any job or background.

Positive test results are found most often after a ship has returned to home port for a few weeks, not after stops in countries where drug use is common, Woodruff said.

— Stars and Stripes

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