All 4,000 midshipmen could take LSD today and be clean in time for a routine drug test tomorrow because the powerful hallucinogenic drug disappears so quickly from the bloodstream, drug analysts say.
That could explain why Midshipman Jason A. Harloff, who pleaded guilty to drug charges Thursday, and other midshipmen suspected of using LSD escaped detection by the Naval Academy's random testing program.
In a court martial, Harloff of Fairport, N.Y. pleaded guilty to possession, conspiracy, use and transfer of LSD, as part of an agreement with Navy lawyers. His case was the first of six midshipmen charged with distributing LSD to reach trial.
Harloff, arrested last October at a Glen Burnie motel along along with one other midshipman, is to be sentenced Jan. 17. The nearly two dozen other midshipmen suspected of using LSD probably will be dealt with at conduct hearings.
The allegations of drug use, the most at the academy in almost 20 years, raise the question of how so many people seem to have escaped detection. The answer, experts say, lies in the doses and the short amount of time LSD remains in the body.
The typical LSD dose -- about the size of the head of a pin -- can be detected for only 12 to 24 hours, said Lt. Richard Gustafson, technical director at the Great Lakes Navy Lab. Marijuana can be detected several weeks after it is used.
"That's why [LSD] is a popular drug to abuse," said Dr. David Kuntz, of Northwest Toxicology, a Utah lab that does drug screening for the Army. "And there has never been a case of [a fatal] overdose like there has been with cocaine or other drugs."
At the Naval Academy, officers choose two of the 36 companies -- about 300 midshipmen -- each week for drug testing. The test is given the same day the companies are chosen, and an officer watches as the samples are given.
The samples are sent to the Great Lakes lab, where they are screened for the presence of several illegal drugs. Those that test positive are put through tests to determine the specific drug, Lieutenant Gustafson said.
But persons who test negative on the first screening are not necessarily clean, he said.
"It means these people could have ingested marijuana, but they were lucky and they were tested too late. The amount in their system is not enough to make the test flag it," Lieutenant Gustafson said.
Navy officials acknowledge the testing program has shortcomings, but argue that it still is useful.
"We do the tests to show that drug use is not tolerated," said Lt. Cmdr. Wendy Lawrence, a 1981 graduate.
The academy has been testing midshipmen for drug use since 1982, but does not keep records of how many test positive, according to Capt. Tom Jurkowsky, academy spokesman.
Between 1967 and 1972, 50 midshipmen were expelled for smoking marijuana. In 1975, Annapolis police found 19 midshipmen at a house raided for drugs. Navy investigators charged 10 with smoking marijuana. Seven resigned and three were cleared during hearings. In 1979, 38 midshipmen were investigated for drug use and 13 were expelled.
Do those figures indicate a drug problem at the academy?
Lt. Scott Allen, another academy spokesman, said the answer is not clear.
"We are investigating whether there is a drug problem or not. We are alert to this situation and if we find that there is a drug problem, we are going to take action quickly and efficiently," he said.
Others say they are more concerned about alcohol than other drugs.
"The drug 'problem' is far, far less than the alcohol problem there, and far, far less then what any of those problems would be at any other school east of Brigham Young," said Chase Untermeyer, a member of the Board of Visitors, the academy's governing board.
A senior midshipman who asked not to be named said some of his classmates smoke marijuana when they are off academy grounds, but that does not mean there is a problem.
"They're just going out and smoking it with friends," he said.
Former midshipman Brian Pirko, who was expelled during the 1992 cheating scandal, said drug use was unheard of while he was at the academy.
"As far as there being a widespread drug problem, absolutely not," he said. "I mean 24 out of 4,000, that's not much. They hold these kids up to such high standards and they are just college kids."
Candidates for the academy are not asked about drug use until they are being formally considered and are answering dozens of questions on a medical history form. Even if a candidate admits to experimental use, it would not automatically disqualify him, Lieutenant Allen said.
The candidate is asked to explain in detail the circumstances of the use and give dates, he said, and academy officials evaluate the situations on a case-by-case basis.
Academy officials say they have no explanation for why so many midshipmen would be implicated in the school's second scandal in three years.
"These are people we are taking from society," said Captain Jurkowsky. "And society has a well-documented drug problem. But there is no room for that here."