When a Fort Hood soldier on emergency leave from the Ebola-infected West African nation of Liberia dropped dead Jan. 13 in a Killeen yard, officials reacted as if the deadly disease had potentially come to town.
Investigators, wearing full hazmat suits, carefully combed the death scene on the 3300 block of Cantabrian Drive where the body of Spc. Kendrick Vernell Sneed was found.
His body was quickly taken to Fort Hood’s Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, where two tests returned a negative result for Ebola. But even with the deadly virus ruled out, officials said they still could not determine a cause of death.
Justice of the Peace Bill Cooke initially ordered an autopsy at the Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas; however, because of the possible health risks and a reported “lack of local facilities,” Sneed’s autopsy was completed by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.
While the Ebola concerns were unproven, the real cause of Sneed’s death was lying a few feet away in that front yard: A package of synthetic marijuana, also known as Spice.
Sneed’s cause and manner of death, as listed on the military medical examiner’s report: “synthetic cannabinoid intoxication” an “accident.”
Sneed “was found deceased on his front porch with a lighter in his right hand and a pack of suspected Spice on the ground nearby,” according to the report released April 16.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Ron Smiley, who now works as a prevention coordinator at Fort Hood’s Army Substance Abuse Program, said he’s never heard of another soldier dying from Spice, however, synthetic marijuana can be “five to 200 times” more potent than regular marijuana.
A wild card
The drug has been known to raise blood pressure and cause seizures, abdominal pain and heart damage, he said.
Moreover, each bag of synthetic marijuana can have a different concentration or potency, resulting in different reactions by users.
“It’s like Russian roulette,” Smiley said. “You never know what you’re getting.”
Synthetic marijuana, like regular marijuana, cocaine and other controlled substances, is illegal in the Army, and can result in soldiers getting discharged from the military for smoking or possessing it, no matter the amount.
While the Army doesn’t keep track of how many soldiers are booted out every year for synthetic marijuana, Fort Hood said 129 local soldiers were discharged in the last six months due to controlled substance violations.
Fort Hood spokesman Tyler Broadway said that’s about the same amount of soldiers booted out during the same time frame a year ago.
The maximum punishment for a soldier found using or in possession of synthetic marijuana, or any other illicit drug, is two years in prison, reduction in rank to private and a dishonorable discharge, Fort Hood officials said.
Prohibition of marijuana
Synthetic marijuana has been banned in all 50 states since 2011, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that researches policy information for state governments.
“Synthetic cannabinoids are chemically engineered substances similar to tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana,” according to the NCSL website. “When smoked or ingested, the high can mimic that of marijuana but also can result in more severe reactions.
“The substances are sprayed on dried herbs and marketed and sold in local convenience stores or on the Internet under names like Spice, K2 or Genie.”
Fort Hood has its own policy on synthetic marijuana and similar drugs, with the latest version signed into effect Dec. 15 by III Corps and Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland.
“There is a disturbing trend of increased abuse of substances which are capable of producing profound psychotropic and other harmful effects on the body,” the policy states. “The use of these substances is detrimental to good order and discipline, mission readiness and the overall effectiveness of this command and its soldiers and civilians.”
The policy also bans bath salts, synthetic cocaine and several plant varieties, such as jimson weed.
Use surged in 2011
Smiley said use of synthetic marijuana seemed to peak in 2011, the same year it became illegal in Texas.
“Right now, we don’t see a lot of cases on Fort Hood,” said Smiley, adding alcohol, regular marijuana and cocaine are all bigger problems on post.
Still, Spice continues to creep its way into the possession of soldiers.
Synthetic marijuana can be traced in random drug tests soldiers are required to take. More often, however, soldiers are caught with Spice during random “health and welfare” inspections or during traffic stops, Smiley said.
He points to drug education classes soldiers are required to receive annually as a reason why Spice is not a bigger problem.
“They know what the effects are,” Smiley said.
And in the case of Spc. Kendrick Sneed, the effect was death.
Chris McGuinness contributed to this report.