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Study Underway to Assess Usage Rate of Synthetic Cannabinoids

The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System is conducting a prevalence study to determine the threat to safety and readiness of the military due to use of synthetic cannabinoids commonly known as Spice. The study is designed to help determine how widespread the use of spice is in the military population.

The $180,000 study, funded by the Army, is being carried out by the AFMES' Division of Forensic Toxicology. According to Army Col. Timothy Lyons, Chief of the Division of Forensic Toxicology, the study will involve testing 10,000 randomly collected Army specimens – 5,000 each from the Tripler Army Medical Center, HI and Fort Meade, MD drug testing laboratories.

"Combined, the samples from these two laboratories represent a thorough cross-section of soldiers stationed throughout the United States and overseas," Lyons said. "We believe by using the samples from these two labs for testing we should be able to accurately determine the Spice usage rate for military personnel currently tested under the DoD random urinalysis program."

Lyons explained that testing for Spice is currently not included in the DoD drug urinalysis program.

"The only Spice testing we're doing on a regular basis are investigative cases in which someone is suspected of using it," Lyons said. "For those cases we've seen a positive rate of 65.1 percent. The data we collect from the study of the 10,000 random samples will provide us with enough information to recommend whether or not to integrate Spice into the other classes of drugs currently included in the DoD drug testing program."

The DoD instruction on drug testing states that the DoD program is obligated to consider testing requirements if the positive rate for a particular drug exceeds 0.25 percent.

DoD has increasingly become concerned about the use of Spice by service members since it became popular a few years ago, not just because of the its increased popularity and the increasing number of cases being investigated, but because of the unpredictable nature of Spice, with service members showing up in medical treatment facilities with a variety of side effects, including disorientation, vomiting, loss of motor control, hallucinations, an out-of-body sensation, rapid heart rate and seizures.

In 2011 the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) banned five synthetic cannabinoids, prompting manufacturers of Spice products to switch to synthetic cannabinoids that are not currently banned.

"Essentially it's a constantly moving target," Lyons said. "The military can develop tests for the five banned chemicals, but Spice manufacturers keep adjusting by using others. He said the current study includes some of the banned chemicals, as well as others that have been identified since the DEA ban went into effect. The study is expected to be completed by the end of June.

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