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Once a party drug, meth moves into the workplace

Stressed employees turn to the drugs to boost concentration and stamina. But accidents and absenteeism tell the real workplace story.

September 13, 2004|Daniel Costello | Times Staff Writer

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 America. 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 -- that are 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% of people who use drugs of any type are employed.

California appears to have much at stake. 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 drug treatment. 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 UCLA's Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, 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% last year.

The California Bar Assn. 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 methamphetamines-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 researchers.

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