USA — Huffing, Using ‘Spice’ is Dangerous, Officials Say

WASHINGTON — The prac­tice seems harm­less enough. Ser­vice­mem­bers, look­ing to dull the edge of a stress­ful day, walk into a head shop after work and buy a small pack­age of K2, the brand name of a smoke­able con­coc­tion that is per­fect­ly legal in the state in which they are resid­ing. It is not, how­ev­er, legal in the mil­i­tary.

Such “design­er drugs,” often mar­ket­ed as herbal reme­dies, are banned under mil­i­tary law and poli­cies by the Defense Depart­ment and all of the ser­vices. As one exam­ple, DOD Direc­tive 1010–3.4 pre­cludes wrong­ful use of “any intox­i­cat­ing sub­stance not intend­ed for human inges­tion,” and the use of sub­stances “con­trary to the direc­tions of the man­u­fac­tur­er or pre­scrib­ing health-care provider.”

Mil­i­tary offi­cials, hav­ing seen a spike in ser­vice­mem­bers’ use of oth­er­wise legal sub­stances, includ­ing pre­scrip­tion drugs, are try­ing to get the word out that the prac­tice has seri­ous ram­i­fi­ca­tions. Besides lead­ing to a court- mar­tial and a less-than-hon­or­able dis­charge, such prac­tices also can be dan­ger­ous.

That is espe­cial­ly true of the prac­tice of sniff­ing, or “huff­ing,” prod­ucts such as glue, paint thin­ner, and gas­es such as Fre­on, butane, propane and heli­um, all of which are known to cause dis­ori­en­ta­tion, eupho­ria and oth­er symp­toms, Navy Lt. Cdr. Sean Swiack­ows­ki, deputy med­ical exam­in­er for the Armed Forces Med­ical Examiner’s Office, said in a recent inter­view with The Pen­ta­gon Chan­nel.

Sev­er­al ser­vice­mem­bers have died recent­ly from huff­ing, and the use, while most­ly asso­ci­at­ed with young, unmar­ried peo­ple, appears to cut across age and socioe­co­nom­ic back­grounds, Swiack­ows­ki said.

“We’ve found it’s actu­al­ly a broad range of peo­ple” using, Swiack­ows­ki said. A 40-year-old Army colonel — who oth­er­wise appeared to be healthy and fit — died from huff­ing, he said.

Swiack­ows­ki believes the deaths, and occa­sions when oth­er users were left brain-dam­aged, were acci­dents caused by peo­ple who did­n’t real­ize how harm­ful mis­us­ing such prod­ucts can be.

“Peo­ple think it’s not harm­ful because they use it to clean their homes and desk­tops,” he said. “To them, there’s no poten­tial injuries to them­selves because these are things you get around the house, or buy in the store.”

Many prod­ucts used in huff­ing con­tain 1,1 dichloroethane, a chem­i­cal high­ly tox­ic to the heart that is pro­duced to remove grease, paint and var­nish, and to make oth­er chem­i­cals, accord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol.

The prob­lem, Swiack­ows­ki said, is that the chemical’s reac­tion in the body is volatile, and peo­ple can get a false sense of secu­ri­ty from using it with­out expe­ri­enc­ing a tox­ic reac­tion. “You could use it one time and it caus­es a tox­ic event, or you can use it a hun­dred times, and on the 101st, it kills you,” he said.

Swiack­ows­ki has made it his mis­sion to edu­cate ser­vice­mem­bers about the dan­gers of inhalants.

“The biggest part of my job is in pre­vent­ing me from hav­ing to see any­one else” in the morgue due to sub­stance abuse, he said. “The biggest part of my job to the com­mu­ni­ty is edu­ca­tion.

“Peo­ple don’t real­ize this is drug abuse,” he added. “You may say you’re just going do it one more time, but that time could be your last.”

Army Col. Tim­o­thy Lyons, chief of tox­i­col­o­gy in the med­ical examiner’s office, said even so-called design­er drugs such as syn­thet­ic mar­i­jua­na, mar­ket­ed as “Spice,” or “K‑2,” and salvia divi­no­rum, a vari­a­tion of the sage plant known as “salvia,” are dan­ger­ous.

“A lot of these prod­ucts are made in garages and homes, so you don’t have qual­i­ty con­trol,” Lyons told The Pen­ta­gon Chan­nel. “Each pack­age, even under the same name, has dif­fer­ent lev­els of com­pounds. So you real­ly just don’t know what you’re get­ting.”

Unlike mar­i­jua­na and oth­er drugs ille­gal under civil­ian law, design­er drugs are not reg­u­lat­ed or prop­er­ly test­ed, and sell­ers often don’t reveal their full ingre­di­ents, Lyons said. Tox­i­col­o­gists know, how­ev­er, that the com­pounds bind in the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem, “and some of these syn­thet­ics bind even greater than mar­i­jua­na,” he said.

Ser­vice­mem­bers who think they know some­one with a sub­stance abuse prob­lem should reach out to them and ask if they can help, Swiack­ows­ki said. If they refuse or deny the prob­lem, con­sid­er telling their com­mand­ing offi­cer you think they have a prob­lem, he said.

“Con­front it like you would in any sys­tem where you want to get help,” Swiack­ows­ki said. “The nice thing about the mil­i­tary is you can always ask to see some­one and get help and have it not be in your record.

“The prob­lem is, you have to admit you need help,” he added. “Lots of times, they don’t think they need help because they don’t know what a big issue it is. They don’t real­ize it’s so dan­ger­ous to do these drugs.”

Ser­vice­mem­bers strug­gling with sub­stance abuse, or who are self-med­icat­ing for prob­lems like depres­sion and anx­i­ety, should see a doc­tor, mil­i­tary offi­cials say, adding that treat­ment is con­fi­den­tial.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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