When Pfc. Matthew Clark was placed on restriction last month, he thought he'd been busted for smoking in the barracks.
Now he faces court-martial and administrative separation from the Marine Corps after being accused of smoking a legal substance many of his friends had never even heard about.
Clark and a friend, Pfc. Dijon Lawless, both students at Camp Johnson's Marine Corps Combat Service Support School, learned from another Marine private about "spice," a legal blend of herbs that produces cannabinoid effects including increased relaxation, loss of coordination and mild hallucinations when smoked.
Clark and Lawless went to a local tobacco shop where packets of spice are kept in a large front display case and sold by the ounce, beginning at $20 for a half-gram packet.
The packaging is marked as "incense," but Clark and Lawless said they also purchased blunt wraps at the shop to smoke it in.
"If I knew that it was illegal for us to be smoking this, I would never have bought it," Clark said.
Initially, the two Marines said they were charged with two counts of Universal Code of Military Justice Article 92, failure to obey a direct order, for smoking in their barracks and compromising duty readiness. But in mid-January, they said they were told that officers with their Logistics Operations School were pursuing courts-martial and dishonorable discharges for each of them.
While the conflict over spice has remained low profile on East Coast Marine Corps bases, widespread use by military personnel has led to specific regulations elsewhere.
The use of spice by Marines in Okinawa, Japan, in 2008, prompted a base order specifically prohibiting its use. The base established a zero-tolerance policy with maximum punishments including dishonorable discharge, two years confinement, forfeiture of all pay and reduction in rank to E-1. And on Dec. 1, a general order governing Camp Pendleton and all Marine Corps Forces Pacific barred all service members from possession, use, distribution or manufacture of spice or its affiliates. But on the East Coast, the subject remains a grey area, officials from Camp Lejeune's Naval Hospital said.
The hospital's Command Judge Advocate, Navy Lt. Samantha Keck, said that because spice does not test positive on a routine urinalysis and officials have not, until now, been trained to smell for it or detect its effects, service members usually need to be caught in the act of smoking spice to merit punishment. Since spice does have non-drug properties, even possession at this point is not necessarily damning.
"There are reports of spice being used for things like potpourri," Keck said. "Depending on how it is found in your possession, that's going to be an inference." So far, Keck said, two sailors have been busted using spice; and each command is seeking its own guidance on how to treat the infractions, with non-judicial punishment a likely outcome.
The hospital's senior enlisted officer, Command Master Chief Terry Prince, said that new efforts were in place at the hospital to ensure that every beginning sailor was briefed about spice by name. And while violators will receive mandatory drug abuse counseling and punishment, the working policy for now on the Navy side is not one of zero tolerance. "They're not going to be shown the door out of the Navy. We're talking about someone smoking potpourri, which is just stupid," Prince said. "We take pride in our sailors. We want to give people a chance to be successful." The controversy over spice so far seems not to have extended into the civilian community. Onslow County Health Director, George O'Daniel, said he had no familiarity with the product.
Marine Corps officials did not immediately respond to queries about working policies surrounding spice or how Marines aboard Camp Lejeune are briefed about it. Base officials said that, in place of specific guidance, the use of spice is illegal under SecNav Instruction 5300.28d and OpNav Instruction 5350.4c, which broadly regard substance abuse prevention and control. Clark and Lawless, who joined the Marine Corps less than a year ago, said they were never briefed on spice by name and hadn't heard of it until a friend advised them to try it.
Clark's father, Kevin Clark, a retired Navy chief petty officer, said the threat of his son getting dismissed from the Marines for something he didn't know about inspired him to take action: He is now looking into legal recourse. Deciding to smoke spice in the first place was a "bonehead move" on his son's part, Kevin Clark said. However, he added, Matthew Clark's briefing had been inadequate.
"He wanted to be a Marine since he was 13 years old, and now he's seriously worried about being booted," Kevin Clark said.
The court-martial procedure typically takes about a month. Marine officials say they expect direct guidance for Camp Lejeune regarding spice in the near future.
January 24, 2010