Not the First Time
Cases involving sophisticated dealers who insinuate themselves into the culture of an organization aren’t anomalies, says George J. Ramos Jr., vice president of Diversified Risk Management, Inc. Ramos, whose company conducted the investigation at the food processing operation, notes that drug dealers in the workplace are becoming increasingly savvy and more difficult to identify. They may be long-time workers, new hires—as in the case of Jim—or even temps. “A lot more planning goes into how they sell and how they get in to sell,” Ramos says. The growing sophistication of dealers and shifts in the types of drugs used are two trends in workplace substance abuse identified by experts in the field who provide consulting, training, policy development, testing, and investigative services. Yet many businesses—despite a rise in drug tests—lack effective policies and training to prevent workplace substance abuse.
Drugs of Choice
Dozens of illegal drugs can be found in the workplace, but a few in particular account for most of the abuse and attendant concern. Marijuana continues to be the most prevalent.
More than half of all the positive tests conducted in the first six months of 2005 by testing lab Quest Diagnostics revealed the use of marijuana. In second and third place in the Quest Index, respectively, were cocaine (15.2 percent of all positive tests conducted for the total U.S. work force) and amphetamines (10.6 percent), which includes methamphetamine, or “meth.” Depending on location, company culture, and other factors, meth and cocaine jockey for second in popularity within the United States.
Marijuana. As has been the case for years, marijuana continues to be far and away the most popular drug used at work. It’s relatively cheap and accessible.
Problems associated with marijuana use at work include distorted perceptions of time and space, dulled physical reflexes, and reduced capacity for learning, memory, or concentration—all of which hinders performance.
Crystal meth. Use of methamphetamines—also called “crystal meth” when it is in crystalline form—has been surging. Crystal meth is a stimulant used to increase alertness and reduce fatigue, traits that make some workers believe it will be beneficial at work.
But what goes up must come down: when they’re not high, users of the various forms of meth become mentally exhausted. The result is mental and physical sloppiness. The drug can also produce anxiety, hallucinations, psychosis, and periods of depression.
Among the general U.S. population, meth use rose from less than two percent in 1994 to more than five percent in 2004, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is sponsored by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. In a recent Drug Testing Index, Quest Diagnostics reported that between 2000 and 2004, yearly growth rates in the incidence of positive drug tests attributed to methamphetamines were 16 percent, 17 percent, 44 percent, and 6 percent, respectively. For safety-sensitive U.S. workers who are federally mandated to undergo drug testing, the incidence of positive drug tests attributed to amphetamines rose 13 percent in the first half of 2005, while the positivity rate for the general U.S. work force actually dipped by 4 percent.
Ramos, whose company conducts investigations in more than 40 states, Canada, and Mexico, says that crystal meth is “the number one drug we see. It has taken over across the board.” A national summit on methamphetamine abuse, held in 2005, declared the problem a “national epidemic.”
Others see the methamphetamine problem as more localized. In a recently released paper titled Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned, Dana Hunt, Ph.D., a substance abuse expert at the University of Maine, writes that meth use varies widely across the United States.
Abuse of crystal meth, as measured by the number of people who enter treatment, is highest in western states such as Oregon and California, Hunt writes, but is being rivaled by midwestern states like Iowa and southern states like Arkansas. Hunt also cites spiraling rates of emergency room visits for crystal meth in Minneapolis, Seattle, and St. Louis.
Gene Ferraro, CPP, PCI, whose firm, Business Controls, investigates workplace drug dealing and use, says that methamphetamine production and use have percolated across the United States, but generally thrive in rural areas. He points out, however, that every organization has a unique culture in which different types of drugs may take root. His firm once did undercover investigations at companies right next door to one another. Marijuana was entrenched at one company, while coke ruled at the other.
Meth is also making headlines in Canada. Young men are flocking to Fort McMurray, a town in northern Alberta, where good money can be made in the oil extraction industry, says Barbara Butler, a Toronto-based management consultant with an expertise in workplace drug use. Anecdotal evidence and media reports suggest that meth use is spiraling there because the bored, overworked young men have money to buy drugs, like to party, and may need meth to stay awake on the job.
Cocaine. Despite the widespread attention received by crystal meth, cocaine use still remains strong. In fact, it registered a higher percentage of use than methamphetamine in the latest Quest index. The disparity between coke and crystal meth use is even greater when it comes to U.S. workers who are in safety-sensitive positions, and are thus federally mandated to undergo drug testing. Cocaine accounted for 23.5 percent of positive tests in the first half of 2005, compared to 14.7 percent for amphetamines. Ferraro points out that cocaine use remains strong in African-American communities, though he thinks that it has ebbed since its heyday in the 1990s. In businesses with a high percentage of African-American workers, there is notably higher use of cocaine than other drugs among staff who test positive.
Other illegal drugs. Drugs producing hallucinogenic or other disabling mental or physical effects, such as heroin and LSD, tend not to be used heavily in the workplace, for a simple reason: “You can’t use them consistently and still perform a job,” says Ferraro. Still, such disabling drugs do turn up in workplaces and in drug tests. Ferraro has seen some use of OxyContin at workplaces. PCP and opiates (generally, drugs derived from opium, such as heroin) appear as well. In 2004, according to the Quest index, 6.1 percent of all drugs uncovered in testing were opiates and about one-quarter of one percent was PCP. For the first half of 2005, those numbers had trended up, to 6.6 percent and four-tenths of one percent, respectively.
Substitute drugs. Debate has raged for decades in the United States about legalizing drugs such as marijuana. But the debate may be moot. “There are a number of substances that a committed drug user can use to substitute one high that’s illegal and testable for a similar high that is legal and untestable,” states Bruce R. Talbot, an instructor, trainer, and expert on substance abuse prevention and detection measures.
In some cases, a substance is legal if prescribed, but the user does not have a legitimate medical reason for obtaining a prescription, so the drug would have to be illegally obtained, and the use would be illegal. Users seek substitutes for these drugs as well. One example is kratom, a substitute for the prescription pain killer OxyContin, a popular drug with addicts seeking a high. Kratom's leaves can be smoked or put in a tea ball and brewed, and the resultant concoction drunk.
Kratom looks like marijuana and smells like sweet tea, but it produces the same effects as OxyContin: an opium-like high. “You can be actively high and still pass a drug test,” Talbot says. Talbot says that most police officers aren’t aware of it, and, in fact, none of the other experts interviewed for this story had heard of kratom or various other substitute drugs.
Drug users who favor marijuana and need to beat a drug test might substitute salvia divinorum, otherwise known as diviner’s sage, says Talbot. Not only is it legal (and available on the Internet) and undetectable in urine, Talbot says, but it produces a more intense high than marijuana and is much cheaper. At a major state narcotics officer conference, recalls Talbot, one officer freely admitted that he smoked salvia and had done so for a long time.
The extent of use of these drugs is hard to determine because people don’t get arrested for it and tests don’t screen for it. The only evidence of use is anecdotal. The attractiveness of these drugs begs the question why they aren’t more popular. “People are creatures of habit,” replies Talbot, who adds that these drugs rarely make the front pages because “they typically don’t kill people.”