Meth continues to rise in the workplace
From attorneys to construction workers, the use of methamphetamines
to maintain focus during long hours at the workplace proves both popular,
By Daniel Costello of the Los Angeles Times
Lawyers use it to deal with grueling workloads. Movie executives say
they like how the buzz keeps them focused as they multi-task throughout
the day. It’s most popular, researchers say, on construction sites
and in manufacturing plants where workers need to stay alert during long
hours of repetitive work. And the cost—as little as $100 a month—makes
it affordable to many.
While methamphetamines have long been a bane to law enforcement, and treatment
experts say the number of meth addicts has been increasing for years,
the drugs have graduated into a formidable problem in the workplace.
The illegal drug, also known as “ice,” “Tina”
or “crystal,” is a powerful stimulant: A single dose can keep
users high for up to 14 hours.
At least initially, people say it makes them feel like a superhero—confident,
untouchable and able to accomplish a day’s work in a few hours.
It may be particularly attractive for the growing number of American workers
who, studies show, are putting in longer hours and being asked to do more
by their employers.
For some, the drug seems to provide a good solution to busy work schedules
and demanding bosses.
Anecdotally, users talk of stirring meth into their coffee in the morning
before leaving for the office.
“A lot of people look at this like it’s No Doz—just
another way to keep them awake and on message,” said Nancy Delogu,
a Washington, D.C., attorney and an expert in workplace substance abuse.
Still, the problem of meth use remains largely unnoticed by much of corporate
While a small number of employers are recognizing meth as a problem, researchers,
treatment counselors, and state and federal regulators say most employers
have done little to address the issue or the myriad problems—erratic
behavior, accidents, increased sick days and health costs— attributed
to its use.
Although there are no government or private statistics on meth use in
the workplace, a major national survey in 2002 found that an estimated
77 percent of people who use drugs of any type are employed.
Methamphetamine use is highest in the West, where its use first soared
over a decade ago in cities such as San Diego and Honolulu.
According to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, methamphetamines
overtook heroin two years ago as the No. 1 reason Californians are entering
Nationally, use of the drug has also been growing in the Midwest and East,
according to a 2002 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“There is too much meth out there to explain this away as a party
drug,” said Dr. Richard Rawson, associate director of the Integrated
Substance Abuse Programs at the University of California, Los Angeles,
who has studied methamphetamines for more than a decade.
The drug is more abused worldwide than cocaine and heroin combined, according
to the World Health Organization.
And, Rawson said, it is popular with workers in overachieving, highly
productive economies such as those in Japan and South Korea.
Recently, several indicators point to methamphetamines’ growing
influence in the workplace.
According to a study this summer by Quest Diagnostics Inc., a company
that processes more than 7 million employee drug tests each year, the
number of workers testing positive for the stimulant rose 68 percent last
The California Bar Association says one in four lawyers who voluntarily
enters drug rehabilitation programs is addicted to methamphetamines.
The Entertainment Industry Referral and Assistance Center, an employee
assistance program for industry workers and their families, says it sees
one to two methamphetamine addicts a day.
That figure is up significantly from five years ago, said the program’s
director, Dae Medman.
Researchers report a small but growing number of employers in industries
hit hardest by meth abuse—construction, sales and retail companies—now
screen employees for methamphetamine use, in addition to cocaine, marijuana,
opiates and PCP.
Methamphetamines have a long history of keeping people awake on the job.
Nazi troops used it during World War II, and many countries still provide
soldiers and pilots methamphetamine-like “go pills” to keep
them awake during long battles or flight missions.
Before the U.S. government banned the sale of methamphetamines in the
1970s, students, housewives and businesspeople used meth, then known as
“pep pills,” to regularly cram for exams or boost energy.
Some major concerns with meth use in the workplace are increased risk
of accidents, especially in the manufacturing and transportation industries,
as well as loss of productivity and higher employee health costs, according
to workplace experts and re-searchers.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is concerned about
the drugs’ rising use in the workplace because employees can become
disoriented and develop a lack of coordination, said Dr. Don Wright, director
of occupational medicine.
The agency now includes information about methamphetamines on its Web
site and provides training materials to help employers recognize workers
who may be using the drug.
“As this becomes a longer trend, we are definitely growing more
worried,” he said.
Katherine Deck, associate director of the Center for Business and Economic
Research at the University of Arkansas, is studying the economic impact
of methamphetamine use in Benton County, Ark.
According to the study’s preliminary findings, meth use cost area
employers $21 million last year—about $42,000 per affected worker—in
higher absenteeism and health costs.
“Employers are going to be surprised what this drug can mean to
their bottom line,” said Deck, whose study was financed by Wal-Mart,
the retailing giant headquartered in the Arkansas county.
Methamphetamines work by blocking the brain’s ability to cleanse
itself of the euphoria-causing neurotransmitter dopamine.
That can lead to intense feelings of pleasure and an elevated mood that
lasts for hours, compared to a cocaine high that lasts for around 45 minutes.
Many people snort the drug, but others smoke it or inject it intravenously.
Researchers say the drug has become as easily available as cocaine in
At their most extreme, meth users are easy to spot:
They can be extremely fidgety, sometimes aggressive and often talk rapidly
Many experience rapid weight loss, and they may appear overconfident,
Those who stay on the drug for days often don’t sleep and may become
paranoid or delusional.
People who temper their use of the drug, known as maintenance users, are
more difficult to spot.
After all, many of the drug’s initial characteristics—increased
concentration and the ability to work longer hours—are traits valued
by managers and unlikely to be seen as a “problem.”
Carol Falkowski, a drug researcher at the Hazelden Foundation, a prominent
drug treatment center in Center City, Minn., said some meth users could
maintain their use for long periods of time and never become addicts.
“There are definitely people who can hide their use of the drug,”
Meth users tend to bottom out more slowly than people who use cocaine
or heroin, possibly because the drug is so cheap and doesn’t often
lead users into financial ruin, according to a 2002 study in the Journal
of Addictive Diseases.
Prices for meth vary around the country, but users can usually get a hit
for as little as $10.
Research is starting to document the long-term effects of meth use on
the brain, which appear to be severe. According to one recent study, long-term
users suffer losses in memory and cognitive ability similar to those of
people with Parkinson’s disease.
UCLA’s Rawson has found that users begin to reverse brain damage
once they’ve stopped using the drug for about a year.
Although some treatment experts have reported that meth addiction is very
difficult to kick, Rawson’s research has found that success rates
for treating meth addicts are about the same as cocaine users—about
50 percent to 60 percent.