A year after the U.S. Naval Academy expelled seven midshipmen for using synthetic marijuana on the zero-tolerance Annapolis campus, the "spice" investigation is over, and college officials say the drug problem is past.
Sixteen midshipmen were expelled from the academy for use or possession of synthetic marijuana between December 2010 and August 2011, when the formal investigation ended. Only one midshipman has been investigated for spice since, said Cmdr. William Marks, academy spokesman. That student was dismissed from the school for academic reasons, and the drug inquiry was never concluded.
The toll is more than double the number of midshipmen who were "separated," or expelled, in the academy's initial action, announced in January. But the total falls well shy of the scores of expulsions some former mids predicted at the peak of a highly publicized investigation last winter.
"I would say that every single person here is proud of our record and proud of the Midshipmen that will soon lead our Navy and Marine Corps," Marks said in a written statement.
Some of the midshipmen now must repay the government the cost of their education. The Navy picks up tuition and living expenses for midshipmen, but expelled students can be ordered to pay it back. One former midshipman, speaking in an interview last year, said he owed the Navy $120,000.
That student said he had been admitted on transfer to an Ivy League-caliber national university. He spoke on condition of anonymity, as did other former mids, partly for concern that the offer might be withdrawn.
Spice, an herbal potpourri sprayed with chemicals, caught on in the late 2000s as a then-legal high that mimicked the effects of marijuana. It was marketed as incense but sold at $10 or $20 a gram to a knowing clientele who would smoke it to produce a potent but unpredictable high.
The Drug Enforcement Administration enacted an emergency ban in March that outlawed five chemicals commonly found in the product.
Synthetic marijuana took hold in the military because it could not be detected in random drug tests, a routine that sets the service academies apart from other colleges. Spice never seemed to displace authentic marijuana on most American campuses.
Leaders of the Naval Academy portrayed the campus spice problem as relatively small and scattered. Officials now say their investigation found no evidence of drug dealing or distribution on campus, no nest of spice users on any athletic team or club.
The 16 spice-related expulsions to date are consistent with the prevalence of synthetic marijuana at the nation's other elite service academies. At the Air Force Academy in Colorado, for example, officials said 26 cadets have been disciplined for spice.
Several current and former midshipmen, interviewed last year, gave a different account. They alleged that a senior introduced the drug to campus in spring 2010 and began selling it to underclassmen. By fall, the students said, spice had spread through the brigade, to the football and wrestling teams and to an off-campus party house.
"That was the one way that we knew that we could get high," said one former mid, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The investigation accelerated in December 2010, when a midshipman had a seizure while smoking spice with a group.
The current and former students claimed at the time — and some still contend — that the academy underreported the extent of spice-related expulsions. Academy leaders noted that several cases were held up in administrative limbo for weeks between a given student's exit and formal separation.