PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (NNS) -- Two Sailors were interviewed about their use of Spice and the consequences - it ended their careers in less than two months.
After 30 days confined in the brig and separation from the Navy in March, the two Sailors volunteered to come forward and talk about how the use of synthetic drugs affected their lives. At their request, their last names were withheld for the purpose of this story.
"I was a little bit surprised, but I had a feeling when I got caught my life was going to change," said Joel, who was caught in possession of Spice.
In February 2012, two Hawaii-based Sailors, Joel and his girlfriend, Bridgette, were arrested after a routine traffic stop when a police officer discovered evidence of Spice concealed on their person and inside their vehicle.
Spice, a synthetic drug, looks similar to marijuana or oregano and is used for its psychoactive and hallucinogenic effects. The Navy has zero tolerance for drug abuse, including the use of designer and synthetic compounds such as Spice.
An investigation ensued and the two Sailors were court-martialed and sentenced to 30 days confinement, forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month and reduction to E-1.
Bridgette had never tried Spice until she arrived in Hawaii when her boyfriend introduced it to her in December 2011. Joel and Bridgette had been in the Navy for less than two years.
"We were drinking one night I thought that it was like a cigarillo or like a Black and Mild," said Bridgette. "I had tried it and, it had reminded me of just feeling relaxed and calm, worry-free of any responsibilities."
Joel did not try Spice until he arrived in Hawaii as well, when he started mixing in with the wrong crowd.
"It was a bad choice on my part," said Joel. "I was taking it for the social aspect, but I figured they did it, and they are still able to do their jobs correctly. Maybe it helped them free themselves too. I don't really understand why but it just helped me. I never really thought about me getting caught with it."
Once Joel and Bridgette started using Spice, the two began a regular routine of taking overnight weekend trips to Waikiki to drink, smoke and escape.
For both Joel and Bridgette, Spice and other synthetic drugs are easy to come by. Aside from their peers, the illegal products are falsely marketed by manufacturers in commercial-like packages as a safe way to get high while avoiding drug testing.
Stephen Ludwig, the evidence custodian for the Criminal Investigation Division of Commander Navy Region Hawaii, said the military in Hawaii is the biggest customer of synthetic drug sales. He said the artwork on the packaging can look very attractive, no one would guess that they actually contain illegal substances.
It did not take long for Spice to have a negative effect on both Joel and Bridgette.
"After it all cleared and faded away, I felt groggy," said Joel. "I felt tired. I woke up in the morning puking in the hole in the toilet for like 10 minutes at a time. When I started waking up in the mornings I vomited black stuff out. Every time I threw up it just made me feel bad. It felt like something was turning in my stomach."
Lt. j.g. John White, a Navy judge advocate assigned at the Region Legal Service Office Hawaii, said that using Spice puts one's career at risk, but there is also the risk to the user's health.
"When on Spice, one's mental faculties are diminished, making it potentially fatal when one is working on military vessels, aircraft or with weaponry, where errors in judgment can cost lives," said White.
Navy Surgeon General Vice Adm. Matthew L. Nathan calls the the health implications "alarming."
"The chemicals found in these drugs are not regulated by the FDA and no two batches are alike as manufacturers continually change the compound makeup in order to allude drug testing. Most packaging clearly reads, 'Not for human consumption,' and that is for good reason. Military and civilian health professionals continue to learn more about the negative health effects of Spice use and the data is alarming," said Nathan in a recent post on the Navy Medicine Live Blog.
"Spice has been reported to cause elevated blood pressure, tremor, seizures, vomiting, abdominal pain and more," continued Nathan. "Several episodes of heart damage have been reported with Spice use, as well as several reports of persistent psychotic symptoms, hallucinations and paranoid behavior lasting several days. There have also been civilian deaths and reported suicides associated with the use of Spice. I cannot over-emphasize my concern on this matter from a health perspective as my medical providers have witnessed and treated many of these reported symptoms at military treatment facilities."
When Joel and Bridgette came to their first command assignment, they said they were highly motivated. They both enjoyed working on high-valued Navy equipment.
Bridgette said one of the best things about the Navy was meeting new people. Soon their drives changed the longer he and his girlfriend took Spice.
"I was so tired walking around at work that I didn't really want to talk to anybody," said Joel. "I kept to myself mostly and I started changing who I was as a person, something I didn't want to continue doing, but I did it because it made me fit in with the social crowd."
Joel and Bridgette knew the consequences of taking Spice. Both had been informed of the dangers even by their recruiters.
"I knew it was illegal, and it was my responsibility to say no, even though I was inebriated a little bit; I'd been drinking," said Bridgette. "Still, I should have been responsible enough to know the difference between Spice and cigarettes."
"My biggest regret is trying to fit in when you first joined and not making the right friends," said Bridgette. "I regret not putting my foot down in the beginning and walking away."
Joel and Bridgette were both discharged from the Navy at the end of March 2012. They plan to move back together to Joel's hometown and begin rebuilding their lives together.
"My message to the Sailors who are still taking Spice is if you are really serious about being in the military, being in the Navy, excelling in your career, stop what you're doing now," said Joel. "There's a big chance that you are going to get kicked out of the military. If you want that nice paycheck, a steady life, to meet the new people and to be able to continue on, get that rank, get that respect from people who have been in, just don't do it. Just stop. It's not worth it, it's really not."
In March 2012, the Navy announced that it has begun random testing of urine samples for synthetic chemical compounds like Spice. The Navy's capacity for testing for designer drugs will continue to expand. During fiscal year 2012 the Navy will invest $1.73 million to test for synthetic chemical compounds and expects to increase that amount to $2.9 million in fiscal year 2013.
"They're going to see Spice everywhere they go because it's a bigger problem than people actually realize," said Bridgette. "You should just not even try it in the beginning. Once you try it, even if you don't get addicted to it, the point is that you have tried it. Most people do have addictive personalities, and it runs in the family. Don't try it."
The Navy continues to educate Sailors about the dangers of drug use to include new and designer drugs through targeted awareness campaigns and continues to work closely with local governments to identify users and distributors.
For more information, visit www.navy.mil, www.facebook.com/usnavy, or www.twitter.com/usnavy.
For more news from Commander, Navy Region Hawaii, visit www.navy.mil/local/cnrh/.