WASHINGTON — With the stress of ongoing combat in three nations now roiling the military, Capitol Hill lawmakers are concerned that America's armed forces might be facing yet another strain — getting high.
Two longtime senators on Wednesday made their case that synthetic marijuana is taking an especially heavy toll on troops — and they urged the military to play a bigger role in getting the problem under control.
In a letter last week to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the drugs "pose a risk to the operational readiness of our armed forces."
The products are marketed as smoke-able incense under brand names such as "K2" and "Spice," which gave the drug group its most common nickname.
"The use of these drugs among our men and women serving in the armed forces is especially concerning from an operational and readiness standpoint while our armed services are still engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beginning operations in Libya," Grassley said Wednesday at a meeting to discuss the use of the drugs.
Feinstein and Grassley co-chair the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, which conducted the session.
All branches of the military have banned the drugs, which the Drug Enforcement Administration describes as a mixture of herbs and spices that are sprayed with a synthetic compound similar to THC, a component in marijuana that gives it its high-inducing effect.
The DEA used its emergency powers in November to outlaw synthetic marijuana products while the government considers making them permanently illegal. The ban is in effect for one year.
But that hasn't stopped use of the drugs by those serving in the armed forces.
Some of the highest profile cases have come from the Navy. By the end of March, 196 sailors had either been caught with or were accused of using the drug, said Lt. Alana Garas, a Navy spokeswoman.
Twelve midshipmen at the Naval Academy have been expelled in the past two months for using the drug, and 16 sailors on the assault ship Bataan, which deployed last month in response to unrest in Libya, have been discharged or punished for synthetic marijuana abuse.
Garas said the Navy's stance on drugs is clear. "It's zero tolerance," she said. "It puts lives and missions at risk. It undercuts unit readiness and morale."
A group of senators would like to make spice illegal and put it in the same category of banned drugs as heroin and LSD.
Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Joe Manchin, D-W. Va.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. — along with Feinstein and Grassley — are sponsoring the legislation.
The bill, known as the David Rozga Act, is named after an Iowa teen who committed suicide after taking "Spice," the first death connected to the drugs. David's father, Mike Rozga, testified to the caucus Wednesday that taking the drug could cause hallucinations, depression, and physical illness.
"David started talking about feeling like he was in hell and generally not making a lot of sense," Mike Rozga said, recounting what he had learned from the people present when his son took spice. "Unfortunately, after coming home, David continued to be terrorized by the drug and shot himself."
Use of the synthetic drugs had been increasing nationwide.
According to the DEA, the drug produces psychological effects similar to marijuana, including giddiness, paranoia and panic attacks. Spice also leads to increased heart rate and blood pressure, the DEA said. Its long-term effects aren't yet known.
The chemicals used to make the drug have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption.
Multiple websites sell "Spice," claiming to be authentic and warning visitors that the other websites are fakes.
One of the most prominent, K2 Incense, is owned by a company in Hong Kong. Next to a stylized 'O,' which resembles the one used by President Barack Obama in his campaign ads, the website declares "We salute the DEA in their decision to ban Inferior K2 Counterfeits!" About halfway down the webpage is a box containing the words "Just say NO! To more Government!"
Calls to K2 Incense were not returned.
The next battle may already be on the horizon. New drugs nicknamed "bath salts" have appeared on the market, with reports that they're as strong as methamphetamines.
"I have been in public office long enough to know that K2, Spice, and bath salts will not be the last substances that traffickers make available to our youth," Feinstein said in a statement. "We must do all we can to stay ahead of the producers of these dangerous drugs."
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Swarts, a graduate student in journalism, covers National Security.)
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