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Screener Sees Drop in Positive Tests; Presence of Meth Falls

Recent data show that fewer employees are testing positive for drugs. Highlighted in the biannual index is a drop in the percentage of people testing positive for amphetamines.

July 19, 2006
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Recent data show that fewer employees are testing positive for drugs, but last month's admission by the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, that he used cocaine and drank heavily was a reminder that, in his words, "even people in my position can become victims of drugs and alcohol."

John Fabrizi confessed only after he was cited in court documents related to an ongoing drug investigation by federal prosecutors. The acknowledgement of his cocaine use came a day after Quest Diagnostics released its Drug Testing Index, compiled from 7.3 million workplace drug tests taken throughout the country in 2005.

Highlighted in the biannual index is a drop in the percentage of people who tested positive for amphetamine. Amphetamine use includes methamphetamine, or meth, a drug that can be prescribed but is more often home-brewed by drug labs with over-the-counter ingredients such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine and then sold illicitly.

Like cocaine, it is a stimulant that can also help people focus and be more productive. However, it is so powerful that users need only take it once a day, making its use easier to conceal in the workplace, says Carol Falkowski, director of research communications for the Hazelden Foundation, which provides addiction treatment and research. The foundation calls meth addiction the nation's most serious drug problem.

"What makes methamphetamine different is that here is a drug that appeals to people who want to plug in and achieve more, as opposed to people who want to drop out," Falkowski says. "Meth addiction and meth abuse can occur to someone who lives in a $20,000 trailer home and a person who lives in $2 million executive's home."

The percentage of those who tested positive for amphetamine use dropped to 0.43 percent of all drug tests administered in the first five months of 2006, down from 0.48 percent in 2005 and 0.52 percent in 2004.

"Increases we've seen among those groups over the course of the last three and a half years were, to a large extent, reversed with what we are reporting in this report," says Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics' employer solutions division, though he could not say what determined those predilections.

Western states had higher concentrations of workers who tested positive for meth. A map outlining meth use depicts a large concentration of users running nearly contiguously from Arizona to Los Angeles, and then north through California's Central Valley into Sacramento, into northern Nevada and southern Idaho.

The Bush administration attributed the drop in the number of workers who tested positive for methamphetamine use to a decrease in the availability of the drug. The number of meth labs seized by federal agents fell to 12,100 in 2005 from 17,500 in 2004, administration officials said. Many states require drugstores to sell ephedrine and pseudoephedrine behind the counter and limit how much of the ingredient individuals can purchase.

While testing policies vary among employers, there are 11 million employees in the transit industry that are subject to a federal Department of Transportation rule for pre-employment and random drug testing. About 40 million workers are drug-tested each year in the United States.

Marijuana use accounts for about half of all positive tests, followed by cocaine use at 25 percent. Since 2001, though, the percentage of those who were found to use marijuana has fallen, to 2.54 percent in 2005 from 3.17 percent in 2001, while cocaine use has stayed steady at 0.70 percent.

Falkowski says the numbers from Quest could be misleading, because they represent Quest clients, not a random sample of the general population. Fabrizi remains mayor, although the president of the Bridgeport City Council has formed a committee to examine possible changes to city law in light of Fabrizi's admission of drug use while in office. According to the Connecticut Post, the committee is expected to review whether the city charter could be amended to allow for the mayor's recall. Fabrizi has vowed to use his office to help make others aware of the dangers of drug addiction.

And employers should realize that drug use and addiction remains a common threat in the workplace, Falkowski says.

"Addiction can happen to anyone. There is no immunity to it," she says. "It can happen to people who are elected officials, blue-collar workers and to everyone in between."

--Jeremy Smerd

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