Lives are on the line, both directly and indirectly, when it comes to drug abuse in the military. Sadly, the harmful effects of bath salts are not entirely acute, but may result in chronic depression, delusions, and paranoia. As history tends to repeat itself we must be vigilant to address this current concern in addition to taking preemptive steps to combat the looming issues on the horizon.
To maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas is the mission of our Navy. While virtually every company, organization, or corporation has a mission statement, the U.S. military calls first and foremost for excellence in all arenas.
As the television commercial commonly points out in the recruiting slogan, America’s Navy is truly A Global Force for Good and one doesn’t need to look far for proof. Wartime activity since 9-11, supporting our Marines in combat, Navy Seals operations including taking down top al-Qaeda leaders (see Zero Dark Thirty), a 24-7 “standing watch” mentality, and the consistent humanitarian missions throughout the world are but a few examples speaking toward that good. Living a life in light of the core values (Honor, Courage, Commitment) one has sworn allegiance to is no easy task but a privileged high calling that is unmatched.
Having had the opportunity to serve as a physician in support of the USMC for the past 2.5 years has opened my eyes to these young (and some not so young), brave, and selfless individuals who have dedicated their lives (and in some instances given their lives or limbs) for our freedom. I am grateful to have rubbed shoulders with such heroes. Interestingly, during Indoctrination it was taught that our military is a microcosm of society. Unfortunately, poor decision making, cheating, stealing, sexual assault, and murder occurs. It is not uncommon to read about another commander of a ship being reassigned or relieved from duty because of falling short. Regular “stand-downs” in order to educate, discuss, and problem solve have occurred to target such issues.
In the same way, drug use, abuse, and misuse are an equal opportunity afflictions that regrettably also plagues Sailors. The Navy has recently introduced newer testing procedures to detect synthetic substances that are being abused (spice, bath salts). These in particular have been popular substances purchased over the Internet or in head shops under these disguised names. Spice is a synthetic cannabinoid that was labeled “legal marijuana” and is commonly smoked for its coveted effects. Since these synthetic components will vary in concentrations and types, the effects are notably much more serious than the average marijuana high.
Relatedly, bath salts (designer amphetamines) abuse has become more common in the Navy. Because of this, a recent PSA was appropriately presented including a video demonstrating some of the toxic effects. Our poison center has consulted on multiple patients poisoned by bath salts. Effects have ranged from hallucinations, delirium, rapid heart rate, dangerously high blood pressure and temperature, to multi-organ failure and death. Education and drug testing are vital steps toward decreasing the incidence of abuse in the Navy.
Following trends is also important however one must remember that when utilizing poison center data, these are cases called to regional poison centers for assistance in management. As time progresses, we very well could see our call numbers decrease. This could mean the problem is being solved, or could indicate that health care workers did not feel compelled to contact the poison center because of familiarity with caring for such patients. One could argue that past inhalant or GHB abuse have followed similar trajectories. Even though some statistics indicate a decline in abuse, the problem still remains.
This is a serious problem with severe ramifications.
While this is a serious problem with severe ramifications, we thankfully have a Navy that takes its job, its people, and its obstacles seriously.
As always, if you find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation, please call the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.
Sean M. Bryant, MD
CDR United States Navy Reserve, MC
Associate Medical Director
Illinois Poison Center