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DoD monitors substance abuse trends
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Oct. 25 starts Red Ribbon Week for drug awareness, and this year Department of Defense officials hope to shed light on what may be a disturbing new trend in substance abuse by service members.
While illegal drug use has held static for several years, according to the department’s annual survey of health related behaviors among active duty personnel, the misuse of prescription drugs and legal substances is growing. In 2005, the survey showed an uptick in service members’ misuse of legal substances such as prescription drugs, inhalants and compounds known as “designer drugs” marketed on the Internet often as herbal remedies, said Lynn Pahland, the Defense Department’s director of health promotion and preventative services policy.
“It’s a huge concern, it’s a national concern,” Pahland said. “Any kind of drug use or health choice that leads to the impairment of a military person leads to the degradation of readiness.”
The military has commissioned a study to examine trends among service members and try to pinpoint causes and possible prevention programs, the director said.
The health-related behaviors survey, which asks active-duty service members to report their behaviors anonymously, “really gives us a good snapshot of people’s attitudes and behaviors, so we can react to the data and improve our programs,” she said.
The military has hundreds of drug awareness and prevention programs at all levels, Pahland said. In addition, the military has numerous regulations and policies against drug abuse, including legal substances, covered in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, Defense Department personnel policies, as well as those of the services, Pahland said. In some cases, installation commanders issue rules against certain legal substances, and work with local officials to curb the use of herbal compounds, she said.
It is clear that even the misuse of legal substances is banned for all service members. However, military leaders and department officials suspect service members are abusing legal substances, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Officials with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s office report instances in the past year of service members dying from sniffing, or “huffing,” inhalants.
Military members have sniffed glue, paint thinner, and gases such as Freon, butane, propane, and helium, all of which are known to cause disorientation, euphoria and other symptoms, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sean Swiackowski, deputy medical examiner.
Designer drugs such as synthetic marijuana, marketed as “spice” or “K-2,” and salvia divinorum, a variation of the sage plant known as salvia, also have caught on, according to defense officials.
“A lot of these products are made in garages and homes, so you don’t have quality control,” said Army Col. Timothy Lyons, chief of toxicology in the medical examiner’s office. “Each package, even under the same name, has different levels of compounds. So you really just don’t know what you’re getting.”
Pahland, Swiackowski and Lyons agree that ignorance of the dangers of such substances is a big problem. Many are marketed as herbal remedies and compared to products like St. John’s Wart, poppy seeds and chamomile tea, and service members often buy them thinking it will be a safe way to relax, Pahland said.
“The main thing, from my perspective is: Don’t take a drug you’re not prescribed or that you know nothing about,” she said.

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