Synthetic cannabis, also called "spice" and "K2," was the most commonly used drug among soldiers who recently participated in an intervention program for substance use, new research finds.
The study of 368 active-duty Army personnel found that 38 percent of the participants who reported using any drug over the last 90 days said they used synthetic marijuana, whereas 14 percent of the soldiers said they used marijuana. The soldiers may have been drawn to synthetic marijuana because unlike many other drugs, it is difficult to detect in a urine test, the researchers said.
Moreover, the participants reported they perceived that synthetic cannabis was more popular among army members than among civilians.
"For every category of drug that we listed, soldiers believed that civilians use more drugs than soldiers. However, for spice, or synthetic cannabis, soldiers believed folks in the military use more than civilians," said study researcher Tom Walton, a project director at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"So that gives credence to the idea that spice is a popular drug in the military," Walton told Live Science.
Substance abuse problems carry serious consequences in the military, as they can lead to automatic terminations, he said. Soldiers don't want to get caught using drugs, because they are generally greatly invested their careers, Walton said.
Still, soldiers often have to deal with stressful situations and therefore may resort to substance use in an attempt to cope. Spice can provide users with intoxicating effects like those of marijuana.
However, the synthetic variety proves harder to detect, in part because the drug's chemical formula changes frequently and varies among products.
"In the laws they create to ban the substance, they name specific chemicals that are typically found in the substance, and so in order to the evade the law, the chemists who create the drug tweak the formula a little bit so that the named chemicals are no longer involved," he said.
Spice's changing formula makes it difficult to create a urine test that can detect the substance, Walton said.
Still, the military plans to include spice in the standard urine analysis screen, he said, although it is not clear when exactly this new policy will be implemented.
"This could mean the end of spice's popularity in the military," Walton said.