Once a party drug, meth moves into the workplace

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.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is concerned about the drugs’ rising use in the workplace because employees can become disoriented and develop a lack of coordination, said Dr. Don Wright, director of occupational medicine. The agency now includes information about methamphetamines on its website and provides training materials to help employers recognize workers who may be using the drug. “As this becomes a longer trend, we are definitely growing more worried,” he said.


Katherine Deck, associate director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, is studying the economic impact of methamphetamine use in Benton County, Ark. According to the study’s preliminary findings, meth use cost area employers $21 million last year -- about $42,000 per affected worker -- in higher absenteeism and health costs. “Employers are going to be surprised what this drug can mean to their bottom line,” said Deck, whose study was financed by Wal-Mart, the retailing giant that is headquartered in the Arkansas county.

Methamphetamines work by blocking the brain’s ability to cleanse itself of the euphoria-causing neurotransmitter dopamine. That can lead to intense feelings of pleasure and an elevated mood that last for hours, compared to a cocaine high that lasts for around 45 minutes. Many people snort the drug, but others smoke it or inject it intravenously.

Researchers say the drug has become as easily available as cocaine in recent years. At their most extreme, meth users are easy to spot: They can be extremely fidgety, sometimes aggressive and often talk rapidly without stopping. Many experience rapid weight loss, and they may appear overconfident, even cocky. Those who stay on the drug for days often don’t sleep and may become paranoid or delusional.

People who temper their use of the drug, known as maintenance users, are more difficult to spot. After all, 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.”

Carol Falkowski, a drug researcher at the Hazelden Foundation, a prominent drug treatment center in Center City, Minn., said some meth users could maintain their use for long periods of time and never become addicts. “There are definitely people who can hide” their use of the drug, Falkowski said.

Meth users tend to bottom out more slowly than people who use cocaine or heroin, possibly because the drug is so cheap and doesn’t often lead users into financial ruin, according to a 2002 study in the Journal of Addictive Diseases. Prices for meth vary around the country, but users can usually get a hit for as little as $10.


Elizabeth Stuart, a 36-year-old mother of three from San Jose, has worked as a radiology technician at a local hospital for the last five years. Four years ago, she started using meth, after spending a few years dipping into her son’s attention deficit disorder medication, a stimulant, to boost her energy. She stopped after her son’s doctor suspected she was abusing the medication and refused to write more prescriptions.

Initially, she said, meth helped her balance life at home with the stresses at work, where she felt she was better able to concentrate. “It was my super-drug,” she said.

Eventually, however, things began to fray. Stuart said she started losing her grip at home and by the end lost interest in work. Before entering a 30-day treatment program last month, she was often arriving late to work and was calling in sick once or twice a week. She said her bosses never said anything to her about the possibility she was on drugs. After asking her boss for help, her employer, who declined to be interviewed, allowed her to combine her vacation and sick days and take an unpaid leave. “I really thought this drug kept me in control,” she said.

Research is starting to document the long-term effects of meth use on the brain, which appear to be severe. According to one recent study, long-term users suffer losses in memory and cognitive ability similar to those of people with Parkinson’s disease.

UCLA’s Rawson has found that users begin to reverse brain damage once they’ve stopped using the drug for about a year. Although some treatment experts have reported that meth addiction is very difficult to kick, Rawson’s research has found that success rates for treating meth addicts are about the same as cocaine users -- about 50% to 60%.

Stuart, of San Jose, returned to work last Thursday. At first, she was uncomfortable, but she relaxed after her boss and co-workers told her how happy they were to see her. “Other than my kids, right now my job is everything,” she said. “I hope to God I can keep it.”