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Drugs and alcohol in the workplace

A lawyer in a large East Coast city decided that he would smoke marijuana before going to work at least once each week. "It heightens your perceptions," he claimed. "I wanted to know what was going on in the office." But after several times, he gave it up.

"I found I got nothing done on those days. It really sapped my energy."

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Marjorie spent one summer working in a New Jersey packaging plant to earn money for college. She was surprised at the lunch time breaks her co-workers took.

"It was very boring work," she says. "Getting high was very tempting for them because it was a drag to be there straight." Workers would drink beer or smoke marijuana in the parking lot during their break. And it affected the work they did.

"They would leave some packages empty or let damaged ones go through," Marjorie says. "To their state of mind, it was funny. I hate to think of the stores that got the packages."

Joe, who works at a social research firm, reports that the people who use drugs there have the more menial jobs.

"There are some who go out at lunch and smoke dope or do some coke [cocaine], " he says.

There are few statistics on the problems of drugs in the workplace. Most experts estimate that from 7 to 10 percent of the American working population has job problems caused by alcohol or drug abuse.

Industry spokespersons will not say drug abuse in the workplace is epidemic. But many US companies are taking more action to deal with it. Whether for humanitarian or cost reasons, the problem is being taken seriously. A growing number of corporations are forming employee assistance programs (EAPs), designed to help workers and their families with "behaviorial" problems (often alcoholism and drug addiction).

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And Blue Cross, the nation's largest private health insurer, has recently begun a federally financed experiment that offers coverage for treatment of drug abuse problems in ordinary health insurance.

Widespread acceptance and use of drugs by a substantial number of young adults is documented. In a 1977 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 60 percent of those between ages 18 and 25 reported having used marijuana at least once. In the same age range, 20 percent reported having tried harder drugs such as cocaine and hallucinogens, and 27 percent reported nonmedical use of prescription drugs.

The findings are similar for the coming generation of workers. In a survey of high school seniors in 1979, NIDA found that 65 percent of the class had used illicit drugs at some time in their lives.

The problems caused by the use of drugs or alcohol or both during work hours are manifold. There are increased accidents, insubordination, absenteeism, and decreased productivity, say employee counselors. It is estimated that an employee who has drug or alcohol problems will cost a company an average of one-quarter of his salary and benefits.

An employment assistant program consultant tells of a firm that makes freight cars which has a daily absentee rate of 13.8 percent, part of which he believes is due to behaviorial problems caused by drugs and/or alcohol.

"We tried to sit down with them and figure out what it costs in terms of products, but we couldn't come up with anything," the consultant says. "I think they may lose as much as a freight car a month due to these problems."

Drug use at the work site could be a safety problem for others, especially in the nuclear industry.

Eleven persons, including security guards, were arrested and charged with involvement in a drug ring that dealt in marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, and cocaine at the Trojan nuclear power plant in Oregon last November. And an East Coast consulting firm reports that it has been asked to help handle a drug problem at a nuclear waste disposal site.

Industry reports that on-the-job drug abusers include both blue-collar workers and management. The average alcoholic is under 45 and has 18 years service with the company, while drug abusers are under 30 and have less than seven years work experience.

"If we hide our head in the sand and think that this phenomenon is found only among marginal people, we're making a mistake," adds John McVernon of the National Association on Drug Abuse Problems (NADAP), headquartered in New York City.

While experts admit that marijuana use is common, they continue to see alcohol as the No. 1 concern. However, observers are beginning to see a new trend, especially among younger workers, toward dual addictions to both alcohol and other drugs, including prescription pharmaceuticals.

Maynard Rosen of the St. Louis Area National Council on Alcoholism notes that such dual dependencies have been difficult to treat in existing programs. He adds that these dual abusers are often young and frequently female.

"They drink at night when it doesn't matter if they have alcohol on their breath, and during the day they get the same effect from polydrugs," says Mr. Rosen.


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