Air Force Fears New 'Drug Craze'

The Air Force fears epidemic use of the synthetic drugs known as “bath salts," but fails to even track cases.

While its criminal investigations branch has issued a bulletin about troops’ use of a hot designer stimulant and a more recent report by its news service proclaimed a full-blown drug craze within the military, the Air Force has little knowledge of whether or not service members are actually using the synthetic drugs known as “bath salts” and lacks the means to track cases.

This summer, a front page story in the New York Times warned of “An Alarming New Stimulant, Legal in Many States.” Comparing increased use of bath salts to PCP abuse in the 1970s, the Times offered up examples of people driven to psychotic states by the synthetic recreational drug, including “a man in Pennsylvania who broke into a monastery and stabbed a priest, and a woman in West Virginia who scratched herself ‘to pieces’ over several days because she thought there was something under her skin.”

“There were some [users of bath salts] who were admitted overnight for treatment and subsequently admitted to the psych floor upstairs,” Dr. Jeffrey J. Narmi of Schuylkill Medical Center in Pottsville, Pennsylvania told the Times. “These people were completely disconnected from reality and in a very bad place.”

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Long before it was front page news in New York, however, the U.S. military was weighing in on bath salts in an internal “criminal intelligence bulletin” that was obtained by AlterNet. Issued by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and designated “for official use only,” the November 2010 report warns that “outreach and education is needed otherwise the Air Force may see a rise in [bath salts’] popularity among its members.”

Relying heavily on open source information, the Air Force report asserted that the powdery or crystalline substances, which contain chemicals like mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone and are often snorted, smoked or injected, “appear to have been designed to circumvent existing drug laws and are potentially harmful.”

Alongside pictures of packages of “Ivory Wave,” one of the top brands of the drug mentioned by the New York Times, and “Bolivian Bath,” which sports an image of actor Al Pacino holding an M-16 automatic rifle in a scene from the 1983 film Scarface, the Air Force report claims these “legal substitutes for ecstasy, cocaine and amphetamines…are powerful stimulant drugs designed to avoid legal prosecution and are commonly available on the internet and specialty head shops.”

Released last November, the criminal intelligence bulletin stated that “these substances are legal to possess and distribute in the U.S.” However, in an article for AlterNet, Kristen Gwynne notes that today “[a]t least 28 states have already banned the chemicals in bath salts, and some politicians are pushing for a federal approach.”

Air Force regulations prohibit the sale, possession or “improper use” of “any intoxicating substance, other than alcohol, that is inhaled, injected, consumed, or introduced into the body in any manner for purposes of altering mood or function,” meaning that the use of bath salts is grounds for a misconduct discharge. (Earlier year, the Air Force began discharge proceedings for 30 airmen from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma as a result of their possession or use of a synthetic form of marijuana known as “Spice.”)

In a June video report, Staff Sergeant Chris Pyles of Air Force News called bath salts “the latest drug craze affecting service members,” but evidence of this is scant. While the use of bath salts has been cited in connection with a case involving David Stewart, an Army sergeant and Iraq War veteran from Washington State who killed his girlfriend and then himself (and may also have beaten his 5-year-old son to death) in April of this year, there is little evidence to suggest an epidemic of use within the U.S. military.

Last year, according to figures provided to AlterNet by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the agency carried out 532 criminal investigations involving drugs. This year, it has probed 308 drug cases. The Office of Special Investigations does not track cases by substance, so it has no idea whether any of the cases center on the synthetic designer drug. “We can't tell you specifically if any of our investigations involved bath salts,” a spokesperson told AlterNet.

When contacted by AlterNet, Dejan Dedic, one of the two Office of Special Investigations personnel who prepared the November 2010 criminal intelligence bulletin, refused to say whether or not bath salts had ever been a problem within the Air Force.

In Gwynne’s article on the designer stimulant for AlterNet, she noted “Media and law enforcement have been quick to stir up panic over the drugs.” The Air Force seems to have joined in, but without any way of measuring whether the “drug craze” they claim is affecting the military has ever been even a modest problem.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of and a senior editor at AlterNet. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso). You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook