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Strengthening the case for workplace drug testing: the growing problem of Methamphetamines.

Recent research reports a sobering message for employers: about three-quarters of illegal drug users are employed, and one in five workers age 18 to 25 uses drugs at work. Among the drugs of choice, meth is the fastest growing and is a target of police nationwide. Meth users may be seeking to relieve workplace boredom, enhance concentration and wakefulness and generally improve performance. Ultimately, however, they are likely to increase a company's accident rate, absenteeism, turnover, health costs, grievance issues, and losses through theft, to name just some of the negatives. Companies can do much to control or eliminate the problem through explicitly written, well-disseminated, and strictly enforced policies, as well as drug testing, employee education, and employee assistance policies.

Introduction and Background

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an estimated 75% of illegal drug users are employed and one out of five workers in the 18-25 age bracket uses drugs at the worksite (NIDA, 2005). Methamphetamine (meth) use, in particular, is causing growing alarm for employers across the U.S. In a 2004 summary report by Quest Diagnostics Inc. that analyzed all drug test results performed by the company, positive tests for meth increased 68% over a one-year period (Quest, 2005). The resulting negative workplace behaviors have caused many companies to increase drug screenings. According to Quest Diagnostics the country's largest drug-testing company, the number of workers and applicants testing positive for meth has been rapidly increasing in the general workforce, led by southeastern states such as Georgia and Alabama. In addition, U.S. police raids of meth labs increased as much as 500% (Johnston, 2004). Police nationwide rank methamphetamine the No. 1 drug they battle today: in a survey of 500 law-enforcement agencies in 45 states released in July of 2005 by the National Association of Counties, 58% said meth is their biggest drug problem (Jefferson, 2005). To illustrate, Figure 1 from the Office of Applied Statistics at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services details the U.S. geographical migration of meth from the West Coast and increases in usage. According to the World Health Organization, the drug is more abused worldwide than cocaine and heroine and is increasingly popular with workers in highly industrialized economies. Future projections indicate that meth use will surpass cocaine as the illegal stimulant of choice.


Implications for employers are great. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates annual workplace losses due to drug use of over $100 billion. Meth abuse losses are from accidents, health insurance and medical costs, absenteeism, tardiness, sick leave abuse, grievances, disability payments, lowered productivity, lowered co-worker morale, turnover, equipment damage, damage to public image, threats to public safety, worksite security and theft (Ladika, 2005). According to the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI), drug users consume almost twice the employment benefits as nonusers, are absent 50% more often, and file more than twice as many workers' compensation claims.

The University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research conducted an economic impact study in Benton County, Arkansas. According to the findings, meth use costs employers an estimated $42,000 per meth-using-worker-per year. This number does not include treatment, law enforcement, or other drug related expenditures (Adams, 2004). The Center identified five categories in which meth use most notably affects the workplace. The first and largest impact is on employee absenteeism; employees who use meth are five times more likely to miss work than non-using co-workers. Second, meth users are less productive; it takes four meth users to do the job of three non-meth users. Third, employee theft is more likely. Fourth, health insurance premiums are higher with meth users in the workplace. Lastly, employers pay more in workers' compensation costs because meth users are more likely to file claims and the claim is typically more expensive (Adams, 2004).

Meth use has moved across socio-economic levels. Once exclusively the choice of low-income people, truckers, and bikers, it is now being used by overworked secretaries, stressed teachers, soldiers on long battle missions, attorneys in law firms, and workers in the medical profession, all in attempts to boost concentration, stamina, and deal with the increasing work pressure of longer hours and need for greater productivity. Furthermore, meth is different from other illegal drugs used in the workplace. It causes more damage to the employee's brain, is more likely to cause mental illness in those who are predisposed, including psychosis, and increases the propensity to aggressive behavior and violence (Johnson, 2005).

Alarm over meth use has intensified in the workplace and organizations are struggling with ways to handle the significant risks of employee abuse. This has led many companies that previously did not have drug policies to implement them and those with policies to revisit and clarify them. A drug-free workplace with well thought out drug-testing procedures, supervisor and staff training, and establishment of an Employee Assistance Program are key elements for organizations to ward off meth's effects. Many companies whose drug problems cannot be remedied using drug-free policies alone have enlisted the help of local law enforcement, and some evidence shows this has helped scale back the problem in the workplace.

Methamphetamine Overview

The drug. Use of amphetamines and their methyl subgroup methamphetamines, has been widely documented, as early as the first German synthesis in 1887 (Gahlinger, 2004). They were used to treat asthma, low blood pressure, weight loss, depression, and as a stimulant, but over-the-counter sales were banned in the 1970s due to increasing abuses. The more potent meth is a highly addictive synthetic drug that stimulates the central nervous system with effects similar to the drug "speed." Meth can be taken orally, smoked, injected, or snorted. Known by names such as "ice," "Tina," "glass," and "crystal," meth users experience a high immediately after taking the drug, which lasts for eight-14 hours. During this time, users exhibit high energy behavior and usually do not eat or sleep. Methamphetamines work by blocking the brain's ability to rid itself of the euphoria-causing neurotransmitter dopamine. Meth is very similar to cocaine, but cocaine is metabolized more quickly in the body (Hazelden, 2005a). Thus, the high achieved from meth last hours, compared to a cocaine high which lasts only 30-45 minutes; users often identify the long high as its main attraction. The hours-long meth high is also more suitable to people punching time clocks than the 30-minute cocaine high. Workers can't be running to the bathroom every half hour to get high on cocaine; if an employee does meth in the morning, he or she is good until noon. Meth is also often referred to as the "poor man's cocaine."

Short-term effects of meth use include increased attention and decreased fatigue, increased activity, decreased appetite, euphoria or rush, increased respiration, and hyperthermia. While short-term effects are mostly physical, long-term effects are both physical and psychological and include dependence and addiction, psychosis (paranoia, hallucinations, and mood disturbances), stroke, and severe weight loss. Chronic use can result in inflammation of the heart lining, episodes of violent behavior, extreme paranoia, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, and lead poisoning. Acute lead poisoning occurs because production requires lead acetate as a reagent. Errors during production can lead to drug contamination, which inevitably can poison users.

Continued meth use can damage areas of the brain related to cognition and memory which may persist even years after discontinuation of use. Meth addiction causes long-term, sometimes irreversible behavioral, cognitive, and psychological problems that can continue throughout life (Falkowski, 2004). According to Paul Thompson, a brain-mapping expert at UCLA, regular meth users lose about 1% of their brain cells every year, which is comparable to the loss experienced by people with Alzheimer's disease, stroke, and epilepsy (Jones, 2004). The long-term effects of meth are unusually harsh compared with other drugs.

Table 1 is compiled from literature from the Hazelden Foundation, the world-renowned rehabilitation facility in Minnesota, and provides symptoms for employers to look for.

* Meth crime. Because meth is relatively easy to make, abusers eventually attempt to make it themselves. With the advent of the Internet, meth recipes and ingredients are very accessible. Labs are typically found in rural areas; close proximity to farms and distant neighbors make obtaining chemicals necessary for production easy and detection less likely. In Minnesota, the Department of Corrections (DOC) reports that compared to other criminal offense (which tend to be concentrated in large urban areas) meth has been largely a rural phenomenon, with 72% of the meth offenders incarcerated outside metro counties. This rural overrepresentation is even greater for those imprisoned for the manufacture and sale of meth, with 87% of the offenders coming from rural Minnesota (MN Ice, 2005). The Minnesota DOC also reports that as of July 1, 2005, meth inmates constituted 49% of drug offenders in Minnesota prisons. Statistics from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety reveal that meth lab seizures rose more than 700 percent between 1998 and 2003. Minnesota's experience is not unlike that of neighboring states, with Iowa particularly hard hit. Missouri tops the list with more than 8,000 labs, equipment caches, and toxic dumps seized between 2002 and 2004 (Jefferson, 2005).

* Company culture. Employees are being asked by their employers to do more, and meth seems to provide a good solution to busy work schedules and demanding bosses. Many occupations demand long hours of repetitive work, such as construction and manufacturing, and, as a result, these are the most common workplaces where employees use methamphetamines (Costello, 2004). However, methamphetamine is increasingly a white-collar drug as well; its use is growing in the entertainment, sales, retail, and legal professions. The California Bar Association revealed that one in four lawyers who are admitted voluntarily to drug rehabilitation are addicted to methamphetamines (Costello, 2004).

In pursuit of increased products and profits, it is easy for corporations and managers to remain unaware of methamphetamine abuse. Although the increasing use of meth consistently make headlines, part of corporate America doesn't recognize it as a serious problem. Researchers, counselors, and government officials say employers have done little to address the erratic behavior, accidents, increased sick days, and health costs attributed to or associated with its use. According to former workers and addicts at a recreational vehicle manufacturing facility in South Bend, Indiana, their employer was aware of the prevalent meth use, but did nothing about it. According to these workers, employers benefit from allowing employees to use meth. It allows them to be more productive by working faster and avoiding accidents because of their increased state of alertness (Toth, 2004). This contradicts earlier statistics citing the heavy financial cost of meth use.

Further examples of complacent corporations are those with employees known as "maintenance users." Maintenance users are hard to recognize because "many of the drug's initial characteristics, increased concentration and the ability to work longer hours are traits valued by managers and unlikely to be seen as a problem" (Costello, 2004, p.2). Initially, the drug does increase performance. In defense of corporations, some users can hide their methamphetamine use for a very long time and not have altered performance.

Prevention and Solutions: Creating a Drug Free Workplace

According to the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services Drug Free Workplace Guidelines, a drug-free workplace adheres to a program of policies and activities that discourage alcohol and drug abuse and encourages treatment, recovery, and return to work (SAMHSA, 2005). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, advocates six components for a drug-free workplace program: assessment, policy, education and training, EAPs, and drug testing (

Needs assessment involves assessing the current state of drug addition in your workplace, determining areas needing focused attention and the means by which to evaluate any newly implemented programs. Quantifiable measures of success could include lower absenteeism, reduced turnover, and fewer accidents and workers' compensation claims.

Policy development is the foundation of a drug-free workplace. A written policy tells employees the organization's position on drug abuse and explains what will happen if the policy is violated. Consultation with an attorney is warranted to ensure compliance with state and federal law, particularly with nonregulated industries outside the scope of the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, which mandates a drug-free workplace for recipients of federal contracts and grants. Because each state's laws governing drug testing in the workplace are different, establishing a well-written policy will help companies comply with state and federal laws and meet legal challenges.

Employers should determine which types of drugs they will be testing for, since different tests target specific drugs. Employers' policies should also state what will happen to employees or new hires if they test positive for drug use, such as termination or the chance to enter a company-sponsored drug treatment program. Some states mandate rehabilitation and do not allow dismissal. Employers in states without such mandates must decide what they are willing to pay for, since meth treatment can last as long as a year and is very costly. In addition, the policy should set limits on when employees are eligible for rehire after drug-related termination. A drug-free policy must be clear to employees and must be applied consistently from executives to entry-level employees. It is also important for U.S. companies that conduct business internationally to have a standard drug testing policy, because other countries are also feeling the effect of methamphetamines in the workplace (

Employee education is vital and must be more than sending an e-mail to all employees outlining the policy and requiring their adherence. Essential education includes the policy, how to get assistance and referrals, how employee performance problems will be evaluated, appeal provisions, procedures of drug testing if testing is included, confidentiality, and other employee protections in the policy. Companies that proactively advertise a drug-free workplace and offer education to employees, can help deter substance abuse in the workplace. Not only does education help employees understand the effects of substance abuse on their company, it also helps employees identify the common signs of abuse. Corporations who sponsor programs for a drug-free workplace will also display goodwill towards their communities in helping the fight against methamphetamines.

Supervisor training is essential so they know the signs and symptoms of meth abuse and know company policy so they can explain it to other employees. They also need to understand their role, which is not to diagnose addiction but to rate employee performance. The quickest way to spot potential problems is to know your employee's performance. If it starts to decline, steps should be taken to find out why. Supervisors should have comprehensive detailed training about the specifics of the policy. They should learn how to assess situations appropriately and act in the event employees violate the policy. The mandatory training should be documented to prove that supervisors attended and the policy was covered in detail.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) offer help to employees and their families with drug and alcohol abuse problems, in addition to personal and work-related problems such as health, finances, and marital and social issues. As part of these programs it is important to address the needs of employees who are not abusers themselves but may face these problems due to a loved one's addition. EAP enrollment has increased steadily over the past 10 years. EAP play a key role in the fight against meth abuse, providing necessary counseling to employees.

Drug testing serves as a deterrent to continued use of illicit substances and provides a means to detect and identify employees or job applicants who are using meth. Through detection and identification, employers may be able to assist employees in recognizing and admitting their abuse problems so that they may obtain necessary treatment. The American Management Association reports that 60% of employers test employees and new hires (Armour, 2005).

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the four fundamental reasons for employing drug testing in the workplace are safety, organizational efficiency, reputation risk, and employee welfare (Evans, 2004). Employees under the influence of meth at work pose a risk to themselves and others, and employers have a duty to their employees to maintain a safe working environment. Drug testing allows organizations to remain efficient by "weeding out" users who are unproductive, have high rates of absenteeism, and cause high turnover rates. Furthermore, some companies drug test solely because they are concerned about potential damage to their reputations by drug users.

Four common programs are used by companies to test current and prospective employees for drug abuse: random testing, reasonable suspicion testing, post-accident testing, and return-to-work testing. Many states discourage or restrict random testing. Employers have the right to test based on reasonable suspicion, but must have documentation supporting their suspicions. They must provide transportation to and from the testing facility to keep the suspected user from driving under the influence. Post-accident testing is common in many workplaces when human error may be the cause of accidents. A positive post-accident test may prevent employees from collecting workers' compensation or unemployment benefits.

Return-to-work testing is often a stipulation for employees after participating in a drug treatment program. Employees often sign "contracts" with their employers outlining the procedures they must follow to return to work. Elements of the contract often include ongoing rehabilitation programs, passing drug tests upon returning to work, and submitting to unannounced, repeated drug testing. The contracts also state that if the employee fails to follow any of the procedures, employment will be terminated.

While urine and blood testing are the most prevalent, they are also the easiest methods for which users can submit fraudulent specimens (Evans, 2004). Hair, sweat, and saliva cannot be tampered with as easily; however, a simple Web search for "drug testing" lists numerous Web sites touting advice and selling kits to help drug users pass any type of drug screenings. Recent arrests of some high-profile athletes and movie actors have focused attention on The Whizzinator, a product worn inside pants to conceal a tampered urine sample. As companies get more aggressive in their drug testing and enforcement, more products will be marketed to beat the tests.

Examples of companies who are successfully dealing with meth are numerous. Creative Memories, a large scrapbook manufacturer in St. Cloud, Minnesota, became aggressive with drug testing, policy enforcement, and creating a rehabilitation culture that encourages employees to seek help. The company has seen positive results. HR Director Cindy Mason-Sebastian has been so impressed with the results that she now takes one of her employees, formerly addicted to meth, with her to make team presentations to other organizations on how to control meth in the workplace. One employee tells groups that "getting caught by Creative Memories was the best thing that ever happened to me." Matson Navigation Co., a shipping company in Hawaii, added an educational film to their training lineup. It had been made specifically for the shipping industry and showed maritime workers using meth, which is particularly dangerous in that industry. The impact on employees of seeing co-workers on screen was profound (Ladika, 2005).

Alternatives. Although drug testing and drug-free workplace policies are the two most common methods of handling drug use, there are other alternatives. For most companies, policies that include drug testing, education, and training will be comprehensive enough to curtail most of employee drug use. However, some companies find they need stronger measures. A harsher measure for drug prevention is establishing an undercover operation in conjunction with local law enforcement. Such operations are being undertaken by more organizations with systemic meth problems (SHRM, 2005). Although time intensive (nearly 15 months at a plant in Baltimore), undercover operations are often successful, especially when meth use is widespread or sales are occurring on site. An undercover officer applies for a position, typically a janitor or position that allows mobility throughout the workplace, and then infiltrates a group of users or dealers. After building trust and sometimes simulating drug use with the offenders, the officer collects data that eventually lead to arrests. To maintain confidentiality at the company, only corporate security and Human Resource executives are aware of the investigation until completion. At a GM plant in Baltimore, undercover agents worked for 15 months to collect evidence that led to the arrest of 24 people.


Methamphetamine abuse is a growing problem across the United States and has grave implications for companies, especially major employers in rural areas. Employers see their labor pool shrink as potential employees are passed over due to a positive drug test, or existing employees begin using and are fired for excessive absences, low productivity, or other costly behaviors. Employers have been forced to spend thousands of dollars to implement drug testing to maintain a safe environment. Meth abuse brings a multitude of problems to corporations, and their Human Resources departments may the frontlines of this dilemma.

Meth use may continue, but employers, communities, and law enforcement can work collaboratively at least to stop continued growth in usage. To control this increasing problem, companies need to develop a drug-free policy, educate employees, train supervisors, perform drug tests regularly, and assist employees who need help with abuse. Developing a comprehensive drug-free workplace is a huge undertaking, but the costs of not doing so are even greater. Companies cannot afford to be complacent.


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Elaine Davis, St. Cloud State University

Stacie Hueller, Minneapolis Business College

Dr. Davis has published over 40 journal articles on human resources topics and was named the G. R. Herberger Distinguished Professor of Business in 2002. Stacie Hueller is an Accounting Instructor and also a certified public accountant.
Table 1. How Supervisors Can Spot Meth Users

* Loss of appetite, extreme, rapid weight loss

* High energy level or restlessness

* Talkativeness

* Sores on skin from scratching at "crank bugs"

* Insomnia

* Paranoia

* Dry mouth

* Dilated pupils

* Distorted auditory and visual perceptions

* Repetitive motor activity

* Declining performance at school, work, or home

* Damaged relationships

* Stealing and borrowing money from work, home, or friends

* Secretive, defensive behavior about activities and possessions

* Unusual mood changes

* Abrupt temper outbursts

* Changes to a different peer group

* Deterioration in personal appearance and hygiene

* Loss of interest in usual activities, pastimes, and hobbies
(Falkowski, 2003; Hazelden, 2005b).
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Author:Davis, Elaine; Hueller, Stacie
Publication:SAM Advanced Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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