Air Force invests in robust Spice testing

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The Air Force is currently conducting urinalysis testing for Spice chemicals through a civilian laboratory and will field an in-house urinalysis testing capability for Spice in mid-March.

Spice is a name brand and also a generic term for a large family of chemically unrelated "synthetic cannabinoids" functionally and biologically similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

These chemicals are typically found in powder form or are dissolved in appropriate solvents, such as acetone, before being sprayed on plant material often contained in packages labeled as "herbal incense" and smoked by users.

The use of designer synthetic chemicals, such as Spice, and other intoxicating substances, other than alcohol and tobacco, are strictly prohibited for Airmen according to Air Force Instruction 44-120, Military Drug Demand Reduction Program, and AFI 44-121, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program, but the Air Force and the rest of the Department of Defense hasn't had a robust way to test for these synthetic chemicals, said Maj. Seth Deam, an Office of the Judge Advocate General special counsel.

"While the Spice chemicals may mimic the effects of marijuana and have been termed a 'legal' high, a number of these chemicals have been banned by countries around the world, by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and by at least 40 states here in the U.S.," Deam said.

Not only is the use of these synthetic-cannabinoids illegal for Airmen, it can also be extremely dangerous, said Dr. Aaron Jacobs, the program manager of Air Force Drug Testing.

Studies have shown that the concentration of the chemicals varies, even within the same brand. The chemicals are typically much more potent than THC, and the number and type of chemicals and their concentration varies considerably in these unregulated products, Jacobs said.

And, according to Jacobs, the side effects, including hallucinations, rapid heart rate, paranoia, agitation and vomiting, may have long-term health consequences.

That's why Air Force officials have focused efforts on deterring and enforcing the policies against using Spice chemicals.

"Prior to us being able conduct urinalysis testing to detect Spice use, we relied on ordinary investigation methods such as interviews and searches," Deam said. "These methods led to a significant number of prosecutions, nonjudicial punishments (Articles 15) and adverse administrative actions -- including administrative separation."

When the ability to detect Spice use through urinalysis first became available, the Air Force relied on the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System at Dover Air Force Base, Del., to do the tests, Jacobs said.

"They could test up to 30 specimens per month for each of the services based on consent or probable cause arising from a law enforcement investigation," he said.

"It was a limited test, but at the time, they were the only Department of Defense laboratory with the special equipment to conduct urinalysis testing for Spice," Jacobs said. "In order to increase both its capacity and the scope of urinalysis testing for Spice, the Air Force contracted with a civilian laboratory to conduct Spice testing."

Testing for Spice at the civilian laboratory was initially reserved for only commander-directed cases, but by the end of fiscal 2011, it had expanded to include inspection testing, including unit, dorm and gate sweeps. Air Force installation commanders are now ordering Spice testing of Airmen.

According to numbers released by the Air Force Legal Operations Agency, Military Justice Division, both Spice prosecutions and non-judicial punishment actions increased last year. The Air Force had 108 Spice courts-martial cases in 2011, more than twice as many than in 2010, according to the agency's report. Also, nearly one third of all Air Force drug courts-martial in 2011 included an offense involving Spice.

The agency also said the Air Force administered 448 Articles 15 in 2011 that included the use of Spice. That is more than half of all Air Force Articles 15 given out for all types of drug abuse in 2011, and a 37 percent increase over 2010 figures.

"To detect and deter the apparent rise in Spice use among Airmen, Air Force officials provided funds to stand-up an organic Spice testing capability," said Lt. Col. Michelle Ewy, the Air Force Drug Testing Laboratory commander.

To get this capability, the Air Force spent approximately $480,000 to purchase two specialized instruments capable of detecting the unique metabolites in urine indicative of Spice ingestion. The Air Force has contracted for two forensic toxicologists and is in the process of contracting for five laboratory technicians all dedicated to the detection of the drug, according to Ewy.

"Bottom line is this: Every Airman knows that the use and possession of intoxicating substances, other than alcohol and tobacco, is prohibited in the Air Force," said Col. Don Christensen, the Air Force's chief prosecutor. "This added capability will provide an important tool to deter use of these dangerous drugs and to identify those who put themselves and others at risk by abusing them. Every Airman is now potentially subject to urinalysis testing for Spice."