Workforce.com

Demon Speed The Danger of Hidden Methamphetamine Use

February 23, 2007
The 30-something Oregon woman was highly sought after, ranked by an interviewing panel among the top 10 employees hired for a new shift at the forest products plant.

    She passed the pre-employment drug screening and assumed her assembly line position. Nine months later, her supervisors were far less enthralled.

    "She was hard to get along with," says Jerry Gjesvold, manager of employer services at Serenity Lane Treatment Center, a residential drug facility in Eugene, Oregon. "She was moody and snapped at co-workers and her supervisor, and didn't take directions well."

    Finally the woman’s supervisors asked for a drug test, citing "for-cause" or reasonable suspicion of drug use. The results: overwhelmingly positive for methamphetamine.

    Was she hooked when she landed the job offer? Gjesvold, whose facility handled the woman’s treatment assessment, says the high levels of meth in her system point to a chronic addition. Even more so, he says, her story illustrates how the stimulating drug can be driving some seemingly—at first—outstanding employees. And identification can be surprisingly thorny.

    A recent analysis by national laboratory company Quest Diagnostics provided some encouraging news on the meth front, with results showing that the percentage of U.S. workers testing positive for amphetamines, including meth, declined 10 percent during the first five months of 2006 compared with the same stretch in 2005, reaching just 0.43 percent of all drug tests.

    But not all data is so glowing. Federal statistics show that meth treatment admissions are on the rise. Meanwhile, drug intervention experts worry that several factors muddy a clear view of employee usage. Meth-infused energy and productivity can mirror ideal employee behavior, rather than addiction, they say.

    And drug testing is not foolproof. The stimulant remains in the body only a few days. Further, employers must confront the employee in the first place, a stressful and not always desired option in fields or regions of the country with a tightening job market.

    "Some employers will say, ‘I don’t care how the hell they get the job done. I just need the job done,’ " says Tim Dimoff, president of SACS Consulting, an Akron, Ohio-based firm that specializes in high-risk business issues, including drug use and workplace violence. "The employer initially turns their head because they don’t see any whirlwind effects—yet."

    The whirlwind effect, as Dimoff dubs it, occurs when productivity degenerates into a hurried and sloppy working style.

    "The right word really would be careless," he says. "[Meth] stimulates them in such a way that they will be reckless."

    A super-ego, "Superman" persona also can create havoc. Safety, legal and customer service consequences may not be far behind, he says.

    An analysis published in 2004 by the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business identified six ways that meth can cost employers, including increased absenteeism, increased employee theft and lost productivity. The drug’s economic impact on employers in just Benton County, they found, was slightly more than $21 million annually, including $47,500 for every one of the estimated 446 meth-using employees, with 50 percent of the cost due to absenteeism and another 32 percent due to lost productivity.

Stimulating effects
   From 2002 to 2004, the number of meth users seeking treatment increased 25 percent, according to data released in April 2006 by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, the most recent available. Nationally, 8 percent of treatment admissions were due to meth addiction.

    Hot spots persist, according to federal officials and other data sources. In seven states, including Arkansas, California and Nevada, at least 20 percent of treatment admissions were due to methamphetamine, according to the federal substance abuse administration data. In a survey of the Portland Human Resource Management Association published in 2005, methamphetamine was ranked as the top substance abuse concern by 22 percent of 141 members surveyed, with only alcohol garnering a greater response (44 percent).

    Methamphetamine is far cheaper than cocaine but has a much longer high, making it attractive to all economic levels. Users may smoke the stimulant, swallow it in pill form or inject it. Early on, users report stratospheric highs in emotion and energy. Over time, those highs can become overshadowed by intense lows and long-term brain effects including paranoia, aggressiveness and hallucinations.

    As of November 2006, 42 states had passed some type of measure restricting over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine, a key component in methamphetamine’s manufacture, according to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, a nonprofit coalition based in Alexandria, Virginia. Drug traffickers from Mexico and elsewhere, though, are starting to fill the supply gap created by the shutdown of homegrown labs, drug intervention experts say.

    The stimulant is not only seductive for blue-collar employees pulling double shifts, but also for go-go professional types. A late November 2006 bust of nine meth labs in the New York City area rounded up 10 defendants, including a corporate executive, an automobile mechanic and a university teaching assistant.

    "We see a lot of people in the financial world, because it’s so competitive," says Jim Geckler, director of professional services at Addiction Intervention Resources, a consulting company based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also sees it in "real estate markets where you have to be self-motivated." Lawyers who use meth, he adds, are striving to cram in more billable hours.

    "We do see more of it [meth use], and I don’t know if it’s because of heightened awareness or more use," he says.

Identifying signs
   At first, a meth user can seem like a dream employee, Geckler says. "At the beginning, you’re able to focus greatly" and can multitask, he says. "You accomplish a lot because of the energy. People work longer hours. Your appearance and demeanor improve—people look better when they start using meth. You lose a little weight. You’re in a good mood all of the time."

    He speaks from personal experience. When Geckler first sampled meth in his 20s, his sales career soared. He assumed regional sales responsibilities. "I would be able to party all night and go to work," he says. "I felt amazing. My production went up. My career improved. My relationship with co-workers improved."

    That is, until meth’s hangover kicked in. Geckler developed paranoia. "I was convinced people were talking about me—I could hear voices." He started taking more days off.

    Now drug free for more than 15 years, Geckler advises supervisors to pay attention to abrupt changes in behavior. Ray Pohl, a shift supervisor for a Georgia Pacific plant in Wauna, Oregon, agrees, ticking off meth warning signs that he’s witnessed. "Absenteeism. Losing a lot of weight. Being paranoid. Always thinking someone is looking over their shoulder. Talking fast. Not completing sentences."

    Dimoff recalled one situation in which a delivery person’s efficient style started unraveling. Complaints from customers picked up.

    "The guy would load up his dolly," Dimoff says. "He would get in there really quick and throw the boxes around. He wasn’t cordial to the client."

    In another case, a computer programmer felt stretched to the limit while juggling several products with pressing deadlines. When counseling employers in how to head off meth problems, Dimoff advises them to keep a lid on unreasonable hours, making sure they don’t persist week after week.

    "In order for employees to do the impossible, they are going to need a little extra help," Dimoff says. "And meth is one of the first things they are going to run to today."

Intervention strategies
   Where meth is concerned, scheduled drug testing may only serve as a partial deterrent, given its limited detection window, says Mike Lehman, general manager at Cardinal Services, which provides staffing services in Oregon.

    "We don’t think we are seeing as much meth [in drug test results] as probably is out there," he says.

    The woman on the assembly line, for example, likely only cleaned up for the interviewing process, Serenity Lane’s Gjesvold says.

    "She had probably used that day," he says, based on her test results. "If not, no later than the night before."

    About a year ago, the Georgia Pacific plant where Pohl works started performing random drug tests. Even with his skill in detecting meth use, Pohl says he’s been surprised by some of the employee results that came back positive.

    When Pohl does approach employees about drug testing, he emphasizes safety concerns—to themselves and fellow employees.

    "These people are working around equipment where, if they put their hand or part of their body in the wrong place, it could injure or even kill them," he says.

    Still, do some employers prefer to adopt a "Don’t ask, don’t tell" stance? Gjesvold, clearly frustrated, believes that competitive staffing concerns are eroding drug testing interest, despite Oregon’s worries about methamphetamine.

    So does Lehman.

    "We have encountered clients who have come to us and said, ‘I want to stop drug testing,’ " he says. "They say, ‘I’m losing too many applicants. I can’t fill these spots.’ "

    A 2006 survey of Oregon businesses conducted for Workdrugfree, an Oregon group that assists businesses to become drug free, found that 25 percent of 1,366 employers surveyed conducted random drug testing. Thirty-one percent did pre-employment screening and 42 percent tested employees based on for-cause or reasonable suspicion.

    Oregon officials also have gotten involved, taking steps to squelch the drug’s local manufacture. In 2004, the governor enacted an emergency rule to put all pseudoephedrine products behind the pharmacy counter. In mid-2006, the state began requiring a prescription as well.

    Grant Beardsley, manager of drug testing services at Oregon Medical Laboratories, says that recent employee testing results indicate some progress. Just 0.7 percent of employees tested positive for methamphetamine during the first 11 months of 2006, according to the results from about 40,000 employee tests. That represents a decline from 1 percent in 2005, the first drop in recent memory, Beardsley says.

More information:
University of Arkansas study, "The Economic Impact of Methamphetamine Use in Benton, Arkansas"

12 Steps Every Company Can Take to Deal With Addicted Employees