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On-the-Job Drug Deals Thriving

September 05, 2000|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS

Employers: Don't assume that all of the drug deals are going down in a seedy shack on the wrong side of the tracks. A surprisingly large number are taking place on a loading dock or in a break room near you.

Workplace experts in the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere say that, in the past 18 months to two years, they've seen increasing concern by employers about illicit drug activity in the workplace. And much of it is fueled by on-the-job drug deals among co-workers.

To be sure, most workplace dealing would hardly resemble a full-fledged drug-running operation. Workday transactions typically involve small amounts of contraband and take place between friends, according to private investigators, employment relations attorneys and other experts.

Still, given the safety and legal implications, experts say drug dealing in the workplace represents an "enormous" problem that, by some measures, is growing.

"Almost every undercover operation that we've been involved in, where we started out looking for theft, we also found drug use," said Ron Farmer, a longtime private investigator whose new Glendale company helps businesses establish a security program.

"And when we found drug use, we almost always also found dealing. I'd say 70% of the time.

"Of the people using drugs in the workplace, almost all, on some level, are dealing drugs, at least to their friends. If you use drugs in the workplace, you also end up buying and selling them there."

Mark deBernardo, founder and executive director of the Washington-based Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, quoted figures from the federal Department of Health and Human Services showing that about 75% of those who use illicit drugs are employed.

"And most of them get their drugs from co-workers in or out of the workplace," he said. "There's a whole lot of drug dealing going on in the workplace. I know it."

Dealers Find Captive Audience

In the workplace, dealers find a captive audience, relative seclusion and, in most cases, a less-threatening environment than your average drug-infested street corner.

DeBernardo and others conceded that recently released figures show a marked decline in workplace drug tests that come back positive. During 1999, 4.6% of about 6 million workplace tests performed by New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics Inc., were reported positive. That's down from 4.8% in 1998 and 13.6% in 1988.

Still, private investigators and employment attorneys say they're getting more phone calls from employers who suspect--and ultimately find--that they have a problem.

And the robust economy, experts say, has contributed both to the problem and the solution.

Flush with cash, workers have more disposable income to spend on drugs.

At the same time, employers--concerned about increased theft rates, rising absenteeism and workplace accidents--are spending more of their economy supplied bounty to try to combat the problem, paying as much as $100,000 toward undercover operations.

Daniel Y. Jones, president and chief executive officer of D.Y. Jones & Associates Inc. a private investigations firm in Mission Hills, said about 25% of his caseload involves drug use in the workplace. Five years ago, that would have been about 15% to 20%, and 10 years ago, it would have been about 10%, he said.

"Two years ago, we might get one call every 60 to 90 days regarding investigating drugs in the workplace," said Jones, former president of the California Assn. of Licensed Investigators, one of the largest private investigator associations in the world.

"Now it's two a month. In the past two weeks we've opened two new cases. That's an increase for us," he added. "We've seen it creeping up."

Jones said that depending on what services the employer wants, the fee to ferret out workplace drugs could be $10,000 to $15,000 to install and monitor surveillance cameras, or as much as $100,000 for a lengthy undercover operation.

And while some companies are reluctant to take on such an expense, Jones asserts that in the long run, conquering the theft problem that most often accompanies a drug problem will offset the costs of the covert operation.

"Most companies have tremendous amounts of thefts," said Jones. Workers "will steal a whole lot more in a year than it costs to investigate. It's not at all difficult to justify the cost."

In 1999, Jones' agency handled about half a dozen cases involving workplace drugs--but none led to arrests.

Jones, who estimates that up to 75% of his business comes from the Valley, said employers often just want to get rid of the employees involved.

"They don't want to involve the police or be in the newspaper."

The problem of drugs and drug dealing in the workplace is certainly not new.

In the mid-'90s, 44% of callers to a national cocaine hotline admitted selling drugs to other employees, DeBernardo said.

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