'Bath Salts,' 'Spice' and US Military: Are Service Members Abusing Synthetic Drugs?

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An undercover investigation for National Geographic explores the availability of powerful synthetic drugs, with names like "spice" and "bath salts," and its popularity among members of the U.S. military.

For the next installment of National Geographic's "Inside: Secret America" series, which takes an in-depth look at how people can easily purchase synthetic drugs, investigative journalist Mariana van Zeller went undercover with a former Marine and a Marine on active duty in San Diego to local smoke shops as they purchased bath salts. The "Bath Salts" episode airs on July 10 at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.

"Spice" mimics the effects of marijuana. While "bath salts" look as harmless as their name, they are a strong concoction with an impact similar to amphetamines or cocaine.

Despite the risks, Jordan, and his friend, who was called Chris, are no strangers to this new class of drugs. Jordan was kicked out of the Marines a month before talking with National Geographic for disciplinary reasons, but Chris is still on active duty, which is why his identity is not being revealed.

"You get this awesome, you know, just power, you know, feel inside of you," Chris said, in talking about the effects of bath salts. "Just makes you feel like you could do whatever you want, just feels good."

Jordan said synthetic drug use in the U.S. military is at "epidemic" levels.

"I would probably say 50 to 70 percent have tried or currently do spice or bath salts," Jordan said. "Over my career, that's what I've seen."

The U.S. Marine Corps does not release official statistics on synthetic drug use, so it's difficult to verify Jordan's claims. But Jordan said one thing is clear -- the drugs are not hard to find.

"One of the weird things about it is that it can be bought anywhere," he said.

While in downtown San Diego, Jordan took van Zeller, who was wearing hidden cameras, to a head shop to buy bath salts. Jordan explained how to properly ask for "Bubbles" – the brand name of the bath salts sold at the particular shop they went into.

"Work your way into it," Jordan said. "If you just walked in there like an idiot going, 'Can I get some bath salts please?' they wouldn't hook you up."

Jordan and Chris said Bubbles are kept hidden from most customers at that shop, where neither had any problems purchasing the infamous drug.

"You have to walk in with a military hair cut, acting like a regular client," Chris said. "It's kind of how you gotta purchase it."

The Department of Defense banned spice for all military personnel in 2010. But spice and bath salts might be popular in the military because synthetic drugs don't show up on the standard urine tests all Marines are required to take routinely.

When Jordan was at Camp Pendleton in California, he said he routinely smoked synthetic marijuana with other Marines. He also tried bath salts, but said he never wanted to use them again after his last experience.

"[It's] exciting and amazing and terrible at the exact same time," Jordan said in describing the feeling the drug gave him. "It made me feel like God, almost. But com[ing] down was the worst part. Once it -- all the stuff was going and you started coming down the hangover was terrible. You don't want to function. Your body felt disgusting."

But van Zeller's cameras were rolling when Chris purchased half a gram of bath salts during her undercover investigation. He said what sets them apart from other drugs is their "intense-ness."

"I think the funniest thing is to find out how far I can take it," he said.

Chris told van Zeller he was addicted to alcohol when he entered the Marines, but at some point, he switched to synthetic drugs. He said he joined the Marines because he was "running away" from "situations and problems" at home.

"[But] it followed me into the Marine Corps," he said. "I've tried at looking deep inside of me and making a strong prayer and, you know, balling my eyes out. But once you pick up that substance, I found my body just keep-- wants to do it."

According to Jordan, professional help is not really an option in the Marines.

"Just by me telling them that I have a problem, I'm admitting to using drugs," he said. "The current 'zero tolerance' policy for the Marine Corps is that no drugs are tolerated."

National Geographic reached out to the U.S. Marine Corps for comment on synthetic drug use in the corps and the treatment of addiction, and the producers were told they could not meet their deadline. But in the same week that they last spoke to Chris, the Navy launched a massive awareness campaign about the dangers of bath salts, which included a public service announcement showing the reenactment of a sailor having a bad trip. The Navy's campaign illustrates that synthetic drugs are a growing concern in the military.

And things seem to be turning around for Chris, who said he has been sober since November 2012 when National Geographic producers last checked in with him. He said quitting wasn't entirely his choice. One day he was pulled over by military police and as he was being questioned about his strange behavior, he admitted to using bath salts. But Chris said that it wasn't military authorities that convinced him to stop using, but God.

"I gave my life back to God," he said. "Every day since it has happened, I always keep a Bible on me and I read proverbs daily."

Chris is being processed out of the Marines, and even weeks later, the physical toll of the drug was still evident. He said he was still spitting up mucus and his body was "still transforming" after becoming sober.

"That's the strongest substance that I have ever dealt with in my life, with coming down off it, it's terrible," he said.

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