When the Naval Academy closed its 11-month investigation last year into the use of synthetic marijuana by midshipmen, officials said they'd dismissed 16 mids -- but found no evidence of drug dealing.
What the academy's account didn't reveal was just how significant a drug culture Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents found.
The investigation ended the military careers of at least 27 midshipmen, including those allowed to resign while being investigated for drug use and an undetermined number suspected of drug use who were dismissed for collateral reasons.
Mids who once dreamed of becoming naval officers instead received less-than-honorable discharges from the military. Some would owe upward of $100,000 for their education.
The investigation also uncovered a drug culture replete with users and dealers. Agents not only found use of synthetic marijuana, called "spice," but that some mids had used cocaine, mephedrone, mescaline and psychedelic mushrooms.
Some mids possessed soda bottles with secret compartments to hide their drugs, and fake bladders called "Whizzinators" to avoid detection of their drug use in urine tests.
All this at a higher education institution regularly ranked by The Princeton Review as one of the nation's "most sober."
The drug problem was so rampant NCIS agents sometimes interviewed dozens of mids in a day, according to NCIS documents The Capital received in September in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request.
"If I had to estimate the number of mids who are actively smoking spice or doing other drugs," a midshipman and lead informant told NCIS, "I'd say it's about 300 to 500 mids."
Several other mids confirmed the estimate.
Naval Academy officials provided documents in response to The Capital's request, but declined to be interviewed for this article.
The academy also declined to answer emailed questions about whether it had educated mids adequately about spice and other drugs before the investigation, and what safeguards have been put in place to ensure mids are not continuing to use designer drugs like spice.
But the FOIA documents provided by the Naval Academy and NCIS tell a great deal about the drug problem the academy faced two years ago.
The academy's investigation, according to NCIS documents, began Sept. 15, 2010, when a midshipman reported her roommate on suspicion of using spice.
Once the investigation was under way, agents found some mids used not only spice, but also the synthetic stimulant mephedrone and the synthetic psychedelic 5-Me0-Dalt.
"Mephedrone is similar to ecstasy or cocaine and is sometimes sold as 'bath salts,'" a mid explained to NCIS agents.
Some mids spoke of liking synthetic drugs because they can be hard to detect during urine tests.
Although the Naval Academy investigation is closed, the Navy remains concerned about synthetic drugs.
"Addressing the abuse of synthetic cannabinoids like spice remains a high priority for (Department of the Navy) commands worldwide," according to NCIS spokesman Ed Buice.
Last month, the Navy discharged 11 sailors from the Norfolk, Va.-based amphibious assault ship Wasp for using spice. In September, the Navy announced 16 crew members from the transport dock New Orleans were facing dismissal for using the drug.
"Spice is still marketed and advertised as a safe way to get high, as a legal way to get high," Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery spokeswoman Shoshona Philip-Florea said. "We continue to develop tests for it, but the challenge is, they can change the compound a little bit" and it becomes difficult to detect.
A federal report released earlier this month said there were nearly 11,500 emergency room visits nationwide in 2010 because of synthetic marijuana. Nearly 75 percent of the patients were younger than 30 years old, and the majority were male.
Surgeon General of the Navy Vice Adm. Matthew L. Nathan told the fleet in a published article this year, "Spice can be up to 200 times more potent than the THC in traditional marijuana."
"Spice represents a real and present danger to our service members," wrote Nathan, describing the use of spice as playing Russian roulette with one's health and career.
Getting to know Ken
Once NCIS put pressure on some mids, they told agents they purchased spice at a gas station on Forest Drive, at a convenience store on West Street and at a Baltimore head shop that sold drug paraphernalia, herbs and incense.
A few mids, according to NCIS documents, said they bought drugs in bulk over the Internet, and had them delivered to the mail room in Bancroft Hall.
NCIS worked with computer specialists to create a program called "websense" to monitor sites such as www.bewild.com and www.supplyboys.com.
"One websense report monitoring the usage of the www.mephedronenow.net Internet site revealed Midshipman (redacted) clicked through the web site 42 times between 23Jul10 and 01Jan11 ...," according to the NCIS case report.
"A second websense report revealed (this mid) clicked through the same Internet site ... 119 times between 01Jan11 and 01April11."
One Internet supplier in California disguised its customers' transactions, according to credit card records NCIS agents seized. A mid's list of credit card purchases from this site included a $406.55 payment to "The Law Offices of Ken."
NCIS agents found this mid's journal contained information about when he and others used drugs, and lists of names. This mid also had a notebook with a business plan NCIS agents said was designed to distribute drugs at the Naval Academy.
The plan named mids NCIS agents thought were investors and drug users. Some were dismissed from the Naval Academy, in part because of the evidence contained in this notebook.
The mid, however, told agents the "plan" was just doodling he had done while drunk in a motel in Virginia, and he had no real expectation of making the scheme a reality.
"Looking back, it was a bad idea, writing what I did," he told The Capital.
This midshipman, who estimated there were 500 drug users at the academy, gave agents a 23-page, single-spaced statement.
He named 35 mids he "knew" used drugs seriously, and another 10 he said were occasional users. In addition to these 45 users, this midshipman identified nine dealers. Some of those dealers appear to be among the 27 who left the academy due to the investigation.
Another midshipman told agents he knew about 40 drug users and several dealers at the academy.
Several midshipmen identified one colleague as a dealer, and said he and a family member, a retired Marine Corps officer, brought drugs onto the Yard to sell.
Several mids named a varsity athlete as a dealer. Some added he routinely skipped classes to make drug runs and returned with a variety of drugs including "green pills with an apple stamp, white pills with a lady stamp and purple pills with a horseshoe stamp."
The athlete "would show me at least 20-30 pills at a time in a bag and I would pick which ones I wanted," a mid told NCIS.
The girlfriend of one heavy user and dealer told NCIS how she and other mids held an unsuccessful intervention in an attempt to get him to stop using drugs.
This dealer's roommate told NCIS agents, "(He) told me 1 ounce was $90, but he expected to make three times that. But I think he smoked too much of his own stuff."
Academy probe begins
A now-former midshipman told The Capital spice came to the academy in the spring of 2009. That's when several mids started using it and sharing it with their friends. The drug grew in popularity over the next 18 months, when the investigation began.
In September 2010, a midshipman in the 30th Company reported she believed her roommate, a sophomore, used spice six months earlier at a sponsor's home in Annapolis.
Spice is created by lacing herbs with chemical additives. The drug was still legal in the civilian world in 2010, but was banned in the military. It was sold at some gas stations and convenience stores under brand names such as Spice, Genie, Bliss, Black Mamba, Incense, K2 and Black Magic.
Annapolis attorney Christopher Drewniak, a former Marine Judge Advocate General's Corps officer who represented at least one midshipman during this investigation, said designer drugs had become fashionable.
"There are times when there's more of this going on, and times when there's not," Drewniak said of drugs at the Naval Academy. "LSD was popular in the 1990s because it is hard to detect. I think spice became the next drug of choice."
It took awhile to develop a reliable test for spice, Navy officials said, but within the past few months a policy of random testing for spice has been implemented throughout the Navy.
The academy's current superintendent, Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, who decided which mids to dismiss for using drugs, had been on the job only about a month when the investigation began.
Miller's predecessor, retired Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, led the academy from early June 2007 to early August 2010, when spice and other drugs appear to have invaded the Yard.
In a phone interview with The Capital, Fowler said he never suspected the academy had such a drug problem.
"If we had known, we would have done something about it," he said.
Fowler said he addressed prohibitions on drug use with mids during his tenure, but didn't know if he had briefed the Brigade specifically about spice.
"I don't think so," he said. "The commandant might have. I talked about (larger) things, I didn't get down to every rule."
Some mids told NCIS they sometimes would party all night, often failing to study or do their homework. One mid spoke of using mephedrone regularly for 20 days and losing 49 pounds.
When asked why no one in the chain of command noticed these things, Fowler said, "Hmm. That's a good question."
Agents widened their investigation about a month after the female mid's case came to light.
On Oct. 19, 2010, a junior in 22nd Company told NCIS investigators his two roommates were using spice, mephedrone and 5-Me0-Dalt, according to NCIS reports.
"I felt the health of my roommates and some of their friends was at risk, and the reputation of the Naval Academy was at stake," the midshipman told The Capital.
Other midshipmen say this mid had other motives for reporting his roommates -- he was under pressure from his civilian girlfriend to name them and protect his own career.
It eventually surfaced this mid also used spice, leading to his departure from the academy.
NCIS in Washington instructed agents in Annapolis to consolidate this case with that of the female mid, and to proceed with an investigation of drug abuse at the academy.
On Friday, Dec. 3, 2010, a male midshipman had a seizure and was rushed to Anne Arundel Medical Center.
A witness told NCIS the mid was smoking something that evening near Mitscher Hall and the Jewish Chapel. A rabbi walking past saw the ailing midshipman and summoned help.
The midshipman "backed up awkwardly and sat down in the gravel" and "started gagging and puking," the witness said.
The midshipman admitted smoking herbs laced with JWH, a chemical more potent than the THC found in marijuana.
"The spice mixture tasted like plastic and was persistent," he told NCIS agents. "To lessen the persistent taste, I drank a Starbucks ice coffee drink. After two sips of the Starbucks drink, I began feeling high. I then had a seizure. Next, I recall waking up in the hospital."
As would come to light over the next few months, this mid wasn't alone in suffering ill effects from designer drugs. One mid said his heart rate reached 230 beats per minute as a result of drugs. A normal heart rate is about 60 to 100 beats per minute.
"I was shaking really bad," the mid said.
Spice users taken to poison control centers have reported symptoms such as vomiting, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations and extreme anxiety. Some have experienced raised blood pressure or reduced blood supply to the heart.
In a few cases, spice use has been associated with heart attacks. Regular users may experience withdrawal and addiction symptoms.
One midshipman described how his roommate acted after using synthetic drugs and passing out.
"When he regained consciousness he began scratching his body and taking off all his clothes, saying that there were spiders all over him," the midshipman reported. "He ... whispered that 'You have become the devil. I can see it in your eyes.'"
A ton of people
At one time, as they attempted to ferret out spice and other drugs at the Naval Academy, NCIS agents interrogated as many as 27 mids in a single day.
"There were a ton of people who were called in within a day or two," one mid told The Capital, "and those who admitted to using anything got nailed," while those who denied it, didn't.
Some mids gave novel responses when denying drug use.
One female mid told NCIS she hung out with two male mids who were drug users because she had a "sexual love triangle" with them -- not because she used drugs.
Her explanation seems to have sufficed since, according to Naval Academy records, she graduated and was commissioned in 2012.
Today, the mids who were dismissed are trying to rebuild their lives.
The female mid, the only one interviewed by The Capital who denies ever using drugs, is working with her congressman to get reinstated at the Naval Academy. The mid who gave the 23-page statement that led to the downfall of a number of mids plans to work at a car dealership.
The mid who turned in his roommates -- possibly at the prompting by his girlfriend -- said that he is graduating from a New England college with two majors and a 4.0 grade-point average.
Emotionally, though, the drug scandal has left scars.
Most of the parents who spoke to The Capital blame the Naval Academy for not sufficiently educating mids about spice and other designer drugs.
The mids, too, have their regrets.
One of the dismissed mids who was active in the academy's drug culture recently sat with his father during an interview in a coffee shop. The father talked about his career as a Navy pilot -- what it was like flying a submarine chaser deep into the night, skimming along just feet above the icy cold waves of the choppy Atlantic.
As the father talked, the former midshipman, a powerfully built young man who would have graduated in May of this year, sat quietly.
A quick look revealed tears welling up in the former mid's eyes as his father talked about his own military service.
This is what the Navy surgeon general meant when he described spice as playing Russian roulette with one's health and career.