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Telltale Signs of a Substance Abuser

January 4, 2002
Related Topics: Substance Abuse, Featured Article
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To cope with personal problems, peer-pressure, financial drought, and with the stress associated with job conflict and declining performance, some people find themselves drinking more, using drugs, or eating more. Drinking and drugs are major concerns that must be realized by management and co-workers alike.

The chances that your company employs a substance abuser or alcoholic are far greater today than they have been in the past. Do you know what signs to look for in a person abusing drugs? Managers and employees need to know how to recognize a real problem and take a proactive approach to avoid many problems such as workplace violence.

Though everyone has a bad day or two, you will see considerable behavioral changes in a person and some sort of pattern over a period of time. Here are some general telltale signs you must make a note of:

  • Abrupt changes in work attendance, quality of work, work output, and discipline- You will notice increase tardiness or truancy as well as mediocre to below-average quality of work and productivity.

  • Unusual flare-ups or outbreaks of temper. Employees getting extremely upset from situations from a creative dispute to a malfunctioning office equipment.

  • Withdrawal from responsibility.

  • General changes in overall attitude and change in social circle. Pay attention to withdrawal from work social circles.

  • Association with known substance abusers or supposed "former abusers."

  • Deterioration of physical appearance and grooming. For some reason, substance abuse causes some people to avoid taking baths for days at a time. Personal grooming becomes sloppy.

  • Wearing of sunglasses at inappropriate times (to hide dilated or constricted pupils).

  • Continual wearing of long-sleeved garments -- even in hot weather -- or reluctance to wear short-sleeved attire when necessary to hide injection marks.

  • Unusual borrowing of money from friends, co-workers or family.

  • Stealing small items from employer, home, or school.

  • Secretive behavior regarding actions and possessions. Also, poorly concealed attempts to avoid attention and suspicion, such as frequent trips to storage rooms, closets, restrooms and basements to use drugs.

There are many other drug-specific signs to look for, such as:

Narcotics: (heroin, morphine)

  • Lethargy or drowsiness.

  • Constricted pupils fail to respond to light.

  • Redness and raw nostrils from inhaling heroin in powder form, or traces of white powder on nostrils.

  • Scars on inner arms or other parts of the body caused by needle injections.

  • Use or possession of paraphernalia including syringes, bent spoons, bottle caps, eyedroppers, rubber tubing, cotton, and needles.

Stimulants: (Amphetamines, cocaine, "speed," "ups," "shabu")

  • Dilated pupils when large amounts are taken.

  • Dry mouth and nose, bad breath, and frequent lip-licking.

  • Excessive activity, difficulty sitting still, lack of interest in food or sleep.

  • Nervous, irritable, and more argumentative than normal.

  • Talkative but conversation lacks continuity and simply trails off.

  • Runny nose; a cold or chronic nasal problem such as nose bleeds for cocaine users.

  • Use or possession of paraphernalia (by cocaine users) including small spoons, razor blades, mirror, little bottles of white powder, and straws.

Depressants: (barbiturates, "ludes," "downs," tranquilizers)

  • Slurred speech.

  • Slow reaction or lack of facial expression or lifeless appearance.

Disassociative Anesthetics: (PCP, "Angel Dust", Phencyclidine)

  • Unpredictable behavior or mood swings from passiveness to violence for no apparent reason.

  • Symptoms of intoxication.

  • Disorientation, agitation, or violence if exposed to what they perceive as sensory stimulation.

  • Fear and terror.

  • Rigid muscles and strange gait.

  • Deadened sensory perception (may experience severe injuries while appearing not to notice).

  • Dilated pupils.

  • Mask-like facial appearance.

  • Nystagmus -- floating pupils, appearing to follow a moving object.

  • Unresponsiveness if large amount consumed.

Hallucinogens: (LSD, mescaline, MDA, MDM, psilocybin, DMT, STP)

  • Extremely dilated pupils.

  • Warm skin, excessive perspiration, and body odor.

  • Distorted sense of sight, hearing, touch, time perception, and image of self.

  • Unpredictable flashback episodes.

Inhalants: (glue, vapor-producing solvents such as whipped cream or empty aerosol cans, propellants)

  • Substance odor on breath and clothes.

  • Runny nose and watery eyes.

  • Poor muscle control.

  • Drowsiness and unconsciousness.

  • Prefers group activity to being alone.

Marijuana: ("dope," "weed," "herb," "grass," "pot," "hash")

  • Rapid, loud talking and bursts of laughter in early stages of intoxication.

  • In later stages of intoxication, sleepiness or trance.

  • Forgetfulness in conversation or simply trailing off.

  • Pupils unlikely to be dilated but inflammation of whites in eyes.

  • Smelling like burnt rope on clothing or breath.

  • Tendency to drive slowly, below speed limit.

  • Distorted sense of time.

  • Use or possession of paraphernalia including "roach clips" for holding cigarette or packs of cigarette papers, pipes, or "bongs."

The responsibility for a drug-free workplace program not only lies in the management but also from its associates. It is very important to be aware of such clues and to take action. Management must be trained in the prevention, detection, and how to handle a suspected or known user. Caution should be used for the latter to avoid violence during or after confrontation.

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