Overly sensitive test fouls military's war on Ecstasy

Hundreds of sailors hit with false findings

March 14, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The U.S. military's effort to reverse sharp increases in the number of personnel using the drug Ecstasy hit a snag recently, when a new urine test turned out to be too sensitive - flagging hundreds of sailors who may have taken nothing more serious than over-the-counter cold medicines.

The turn of events has set back the fight against an illegal, euphoria-inducing drug that military officials regard as an emerging threat to troop safety and even, some say, to military readiness.

Though the overall use of illicit drugs has steadily fallen since the military began random testing two decades ago, the number of active-duty personnel testing positive for Ecstasy grew from 93 in 1998 to 1,070 in 2000, the last year for which figures are available.

"It's the fear factor," Col. Michael L. Smith, chief of the military's drug testing and education programs, said of the concerns over rising Ecstasy use. "Since we started testing, it's doubled and tripled every year."

The linchpin of the anti-Ecstasy campaign was to have been a new test able to spot it in urine up to three days after ingestion - three times longer than the current test.

The military advertised it to troops as an unforgiving detection technique, and Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan Jr., the chief of naval personnel, issued a stern warning in January. "If they have used Ecstasy in the past," he wrote in a letter to Navy commanders, "let them know of the new and better mousetrap."

The Navy was to have served as a guinea pig for the new test. If the test proved successful, its use would extend to the other armed forces.

But tests of about 32,000 sailors in January identified a staggering 699 as positive for either Ecstasy or methamphetamine use. Follow-up tests using a more precise - and more labor-intensive - confirmation method found that only nine of the 699 samples contained Ecstasy and 31 contained methamphetamines.

The other 659, officials say, were false positives that experts believe were triggered by cold medicines with chemical properties similar to Ecstasy. The military is doing further analysis to determine the exact cause.

Military officials estimate it could take several months to a year to find a test that is better able to distinguish between Ecstasy and innocuous compounds such as the decongestant pseudoephedrine. "It's a disappointment," said Capt. John F. Jemionek, a senior Navy biochemist who is helping evaluate the Ecstasy tests.

The maker of the new test, Microgenics Corp., disputes the suggestion that its Ecstasy screen is flawed, saying the U.S. military is the only client to find fault with it. In the meantime, the military has reverted to its current, weaker Ecstasy test as officials search for a more effective product.

The urgency of the anti-Ecstasy effort is a result both of the random-testing results and of several highly publicized cases:

In January 2001, a Navy lieutenant commander in San Diego was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to dealing Ecstasy on an aircraft carrier.

A dozen military police officers from the 16th Military Police Brigade at the Fort Bragg, N.C., Army base were charged last spring with using or selling Ecstasy and other drugs.

Last year, four cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado were sent to military prisons after being convicted of using or selling Ecstasy.

The scandal prompted the Air Force Academy to increase random testing and start tests on weekends, to catch Friday-night users who assumed the drug would leave their systems by Monday morning.

At the Naval Academy, five midshipmen have tested positive for Ecstasy since January 2000, and all were expelled, an academy spokesman said. Though that is less than 1/50th of 1 percent of the 26,000 urine samples tested, Ecstasy was still more likely to turn up in midshipmen's urine over that period than marijuana or cocaine. (In the military population as a whole, marijuana and cocaine are still much more common than Ecstasy.)

Ecstasy is a synthetic, amphetamine-like drug, usually taken as a pill, that is part hallucinogen and part stimulant.

It first caught the attention of the U.S. military in the early 1990s. The drug was taking root in Europe as part of the growing "rave" movement of late-night music and laser parties, and U.S. military police soon found that some troops stationed there had been using it, Smith said. "They were isolated incidents, but enough to make us concerned," he said.

In 1997, the military added an Ecstasy test to the battery of random drug tests it administers to personnel, most of whom are tested at least once a year.

The 1,070 samples found positive in 2000 represent just 1/20th of 1 percent of the 2.4 million tested and is far smaller than the suspected rate among civilians. Still, defense officials worried because the rise in Ecstasy use bucked the two-decade decline in overall levels of drug use.

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