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'The Dirty Little Secret of the Dot-Com World'

SUNDAY REPORT

Drug use is rampant in the high-tech work force, experts and industry insiders say. One young Internet star's death sheds light on a frenetic culture that fuels the problem.

October 01, 2000|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER and ROBIN FIELDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

At age 26, Aaron Bunnell was riding the fastest wave of the New Economy.

The son of a technology media baron, Bunnell propelled the fledgling Web site Upside.com into a daily hot spot for Internet news, and pulled all-nighters pumped with caffeine and uppers.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 3, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Drug users--A Sunday article about drug use among technology workers misstated the location of Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The park is located in Wake and Durham counties. The statistics on drug confiscations cited in the story are for Wake County.

When he wasn't working 100-hour weeks, he was partying with Silicon Valley's elite at digerati events, scattered across the sprawling haze of new money in Northern California.

The dot-com wave carried him in mid-July from San Francisco to New York City on a business trip, where long days of work on a new venture melted into equally long nights of partying. And ultimately, on July 16, into a toxic combination of alcohol, Valium and heroin.

A waiter at the posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel discovered Bunnell dead in Room 1443 late the next morning, lying in bed with an empty bottle of champagne nearby.

"I believe my son was a victim of the dot-com boom," said David Bunnell, the 53-year-old chief executive of Upside Media, which publishes print and online technology industry magazines. "I knew he was drinking a lot and taking uppers to stay awake. I didn't think it was much of a problem. I didn't see it."

Like the drug waves that swept through places like Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s and Wall Street in the '80s, drug use has found a new, eager home in the centers of technology.

The digital revolution has transformed Northern California into the valley of riches, where hope for an explosive stock offering fuels fast deals, faster cars and the fastest computer chips in the world.

But the combination of excessive wealth, driving ambition and a youthful sense of invulnerability has created fertile ground for some of society's most expensive, and dangerous, highs.

While illicit drug activity wanes nationwide, drug use--particularly methamphetamine and powder cocaine--is booming among high-tech workers, according to scores of interviews with chemical dependency experts, computer programmers, technology executives and former drug addicts.

"Drugs are the dirty little secret of the dot-com world," said Dr. Alex Stalcup, medical director of the New Leaf Treatment Center in Concord, Calif., which gets 40% of its new patients from the technology world.

"It makes sense, really. There's so much money, such long hours, such pressure to perform here. It's speed to work on, coke to play on and smoking heroin to come down on."

It's too early for formal studies that quantify the problem, but there are ominous signs of its growing proportions.

The San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force, for instance, has seen the amount of cocaine seized jump 173% between 1995 and 1999, while the quantity of methamphetamine seized has skyrocketed 678%.

In Wise County, N.C., home to tech hub Research Triangle, the sheriff's office has seen the amount of methamphetamine seized increase by more than 6,000% between 1997 and 1999, while deputies have confiscated 45% more cocaine.

And last week, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that it had seized 125,904 pounds of cocaine in the just-ended fiscal year, an all-time annual record.

The young people who are vital to the high-tech work force were mere toddlers during the cocaine epidemic of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and are repeating the mistakes of the past.

The number of people age 19 to 28 who say they use powder cocaine jumped by one-third between 1994 and 1999, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found. And escalating numbers of young tech workers are seeking treatment for drug addictions.

While most dot-commers eschew public clinics and 12-step programs such as Cocaine Anonymous, they are flooding into private treatment centers in the Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and New York.

The doctors who run these programs say the number of patients they see from the computer industry has grown exponentially since just two years ago, when technology workers were a rare sight.

It is relatively easy to hide all but the most extreme problems, say medical experts.

Most technology firms in Northern California, fearing they will lose hard-to-replace employees, refuse to drug-test their workers. Among Silicon Valley's top tech employers, only chip maker Intel Corp. screens prospective workers for illegal substances.

Indeed, weeks after David Bunnell learned that his son had died, the chief executive declined to implement a pre-employment drug-testing policy.

"What people do in their own time, in the privacy of their own homes, is not our business," Bunnell said. "We have a policy that we don't want people to be stoned at work, but there is a lot to do here. There's no time to slow down."

Open Drug Use Raises No Eyebrows

Parties abound south of Market Street, the heart of San Francisco's hottest dot-com locale, and elsewhere throughout the city. On a recent Friday night, workers fled their cubicles and loft-like offices to cram into the Merchant's Exchange Club.

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