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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 30, 2001

Military fighting internal drug war as 'ecstasy' rises

 •  Previous story: HPD task force to tackle Ecstasy

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Affairs Writer

Ecstasy use by military personnel has jumped sharply over the past two years, and top brass are mounting internal offensives to curb the drug's abuse among soldiers whose job responsibilities include multimillion-dollar tanks, planes and ships.

Here in Hawai'i, the one-time "club drug" gulped down on weekends has become a seven-day-a-week fix for some, prompting more random checks, more discharges and more education, officials say.

The number of service members who test positive for Ecstasy represents a small percentage of the active-duty force of 1.4 million.

But, for fiscal year 2000, U.S. Army Pacific, which includes posts in Hawai'i, Alaska and Japan, had 157 soldiers test positive for methamphetamine use — 95 percent of them in Hawai'i.

Taken for the energy and sense of euphoria it creates, Ecstasy has secured a place alongside crystal methamphetamine, or "ice," as a popular and dangerous drug of choice among service members in their 20s who count on its quick passage through the system to escape detection.

A total of 2.3 million urine tests were given to military personnel last year. Of those, 1,070 turned up positive for Ecstasy, which, while a small percentage, is a figure more than 10 times higher than in 1998.

Two Security Force Squadron members at Hickam Air Force Base were recently charged with wrongful use of marijuana, Ecstasy, mushrooms and LSD. Toxicological tests of hair samples turned up illegal drugs — including Ecstasy — and led to sentences of eight months in the brig, forfeiture of $600 pay per month, and bad conduct discharges.

Ken Burtness, education coordinator for the Army's 25th Infantry Division (Light) substance abuse program, said crystal methamphetamine and Ecstasy "are both major, major problems here" for the military.

"The numbers I'm seeing — the increase (in use) has been phenomenal," Burtness said.

Last month, Adm. Thomas Fargo, who heads the Navy's Pacific Fleet, sent out a message notifying all commanders to be more vigilant about Ecstasy use among sailors.

Some use 'Ecstasy' daily

The trend has military officials worried about poor performance on the job and a turnabout in a two-decade decline in drug use among troops.

"Ecstasy is no longer a club drug — that's what I tell my command," Burtness said. "(Some) soldiers are doing it not only at raves Friday and Saturday, but they are also doing it Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. (It's) the same with the civilian population, and the same thing with crystal meth. They are doing it every day, all the time."

Pacific Air Force statistics reveal the greater role Ecstasy has played in courts-martial over the past few years for the region that includes Hickam Air Force Base, two bases in South Korea, three in Japan, one in Guam and two in Alaska.

In 1999, 12 of 55 courts-martial involved the use of illegal drugs, but none of the cases involved Ecstasy. By 2000, 37 of 72 courts-martial involved drugs, and 15 of those involved Ecstasy. So far this year, of the 41 courts martial, 14 have involved drugs and more than half of those have involved Ecstasy.

Drug is easy to find at clubs

In most cases, those found with Ecstasy in their systems are discharged. In addition to increased testing, the Navy has stepped up investigations, even sending undercover officers to "raves," where Ecstasy is a big hit.

Navy Petty Officer Tamara Land, who worked in visual communications and navigation aboard the USS Hopper, a destroyer whose homeport is in Pearl Harbor, was one of those singled out — wrongly, she said — by a Navy investigation for drug dealing and use.

After a night of dancing Dec. 30 at a Waikiki nightclub, Land said she and several other sailors were told at 4:30 a.m. to report to the ship for a urinalysis and were subsequently brought up on drug charges.

Land, 27, who has been in the Navy for 6 1/2 years, said she tested positive for Ecstasy after someone she was with slipped the drug into her drink without her knowledge, and she then shared it with friends.

Although charges were eventually dropped against her, a captain's mast — a type of administrative review — led to a reduction in pay grade and an "other than honorable" discharge that will be finalized in a few weeks, Land said.

"I really enjoyed being in the Navy," Land said, "and now it's being flushed down the drain."

Land said she's looking at legal options. Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Gordon on Friday said, "There was an investigation, and it was done thoroughly and appropriately. The Navy remains committed to zero tolerance on drug use."

Although Land said she does not use drugs, she admits Ecstacy is easy enough to get.

"I have no idea on ship, but I do know it is relatively easy to get at nightclubs," she said. "I would say probably one out of five people in a club knows where to get it from someone else in the club."

Random checks catch many

Ecstasy or MDMA, technically known as methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is taken partly for the energy and intensified experiences it gives users. A relative of crystal methamphetamine, Ecstasy was first synthesized more than 80 years ago, and has some of the properties of mescaline, a hallucinogen.

A single tablet can cost from $20 to $35.

Like cocaine, methamphetamine and Ecstasy are "big-time stimulants. Very intense," Burtness said. An overdose can cause a user to go into seizures, a coma or die. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recently gathered scientists from around the world to discuss growing evidence that even casual Ecstasy use can result in semipermanent memory loss.

As a trendy drug whose use is relatively new, some soldiers make the mistake of thinking the military does not test for Ecstasy, Burtness said.

"The Army tests all the time for methamphetamines, and, because we test for methamphetamines, we test for Ecstasy, but when they come up hot, they're surprised," he said.

Some soldiers bank on the elimination of the drug from their bodies in 48 hours. In response, the Army uses "smart testing," including weekend checks, field testing and back-to-back tests. Computers are used to spit out Social Security numbers for random testing.

Soldiers in fields such as law enforcement and aviation are tested a minimum of three times a year, and all other personnel are tested at least once — but Burtness notes these are minimums.

Army Hawai'i has been "aggressive" on urinalysis testing, Burtness said, and most commanders test at least once a quarter. Many test their troops more often.

In January, officials at all Pacific Air Force bases were told to put in place procedures to expand periodic weekend testing, with the details left to base commanders.

Security forces' military dogs also are used randomly at Hickam's main gate and work centers to check for illegal drugs.

Army tries to demystify drug

All the services have undertaken education programs. At Schofield Barracks and Fort Shafter, officials with the Army Substance Abuse Program have given classes, distributed pamphlets and run public service announcements.

The Hawai'i Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board also has placed certain nightclubs and shops off limits for military personnel.

Burtness believes part of the reason for Ecstasy's popularity is successful public relations. The "club drug" label carrying the promise of more fun on a night out gave the drug its own boost — as did the name, Burtness believes.

"If they would have left the drug MDMA it wouldn't be nearly as sexy," he said.

Despite the allure, Burtness said soldiers need to decide whether they want to use drugs or they want to remain in the Army. And he hopes soldiers will see Ecstacy for what it really is.

"Ecstasy is just methamphetamine," he said. "It's just another drug, and like all (illegal) drugs it causes problems. That's what we're trying to do — demystify it."