A Shifting Threat and Why 70% is a Number To Remember

(Part Two of a Three-Part Series: “Rebuilding A Workplace After COVID-19”)

… other types of disasters — have led people to increase their substance abuse.”
-Dr. Adam Leventhal | University of Southern California | Health, Emotion and Addiction Laboratory

A Quick Recap.

In part one of our series “Rebuilding A Workplace After COVID-19”, we explored how 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina taught us that in times of trauma, substance non-users often become users and previous users consume more. These two events struck at the heart of America and profoundly affected those closest to their centers. They gave researchers sponsored by National Institutes of Health the perfect real-life laboratories to learn how people of multiple generations, ethnicities, professions and social stations respond to overwhelming trauma, the ensuing despair, and constant streams of negative news that come with such events.

What did those researchers learn?

  • Mass Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real consequence.
  • Substance abuse is significantly increased.
  • Hospitalizations for substance use increases.
  • And most troubling, although PTSD largely subsided in a short period of time, substance abuse remained elevated.

In a very real sense, that same pattern of traumatic event, prolonged period of uncertainty and overwhelming sense of dread is in play today. The difference is scale; this directly affects everyone. We should expect the same behaviors broadly that we saw in New York City and New Orleans in 2001 and 2005. Rebuilding a drug-free workplace will be a challenge.

We know that in the not-to-distant future we will restart our workplaces. And we will assume that if you are reading this series, you want yours to be free of drugs and that you recognize the risks.

National Safety Council
Historical Testing Data, Psychemedics Corporation
“2019 National Drug Threat Assessment “ DEA



Why is 70% a number you want to remember? It plays into some of that math we should all look at. In “Drugs at Work: What Employers Need to Know”, the National Safety Council (NSC) gives us Substance Use Disorder (SUD) data to think about.

  • 21M: Americans have SUD (Surgeon General)
  • 70%: of substance abusers who are employed (NSC)
  • 164M: people in labor force before COVID (Dept. of Labor)

If we do the math, what do we find? Risk.

  • 70% X 21M = 14.7M drug users in the labor force
  • 164M – 14.7M = 149M non-users in the labor force

“Why not screen out the bad and hire the good ones?”

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2: Threats were changing even before COVID-19.

With roots in the late 1990’s the opioid epidemic continued into the past two decades, being declared a public health emergency in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But while opioids were stealing headlines, methamphetamines and cocaine—the psychostimulants—were making a comeback.

“The stimulant threat (methamphetamine and cocaine) is worsening and becoming more widespread…”
-“2019 National Drug Threat Assessment”, DEA

Psychemedics data shows usage of these stimulants steadily rising since 2015, surpassing opioids’ positive rates in mid-2018 and still on the rise. Think about that. Two of the more dangerous drugs have quietly returned to leader status, and we should expect that their comeback is welcomed by some who are trying to suppress the feelings of hopelessness weighing on them at the moment.

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3: Disruption amplifies a threat already on the rise.

. While the most crippling impacts of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were localized, with COVID-19 they are literally global. The illicit drug supply chain, like those in the manufacturing mainstream, has been disrupted.

According to the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, huge amounts of the chemicals used to manufacture illicit drugs are sourced from a single firm—in Wuhan. That supply has dried up or gotten very expensive.

But illicit manufacturers are adapting.
The Center for Advanced Defense Studies reports price increases of 25%-400% for the China-sourced chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamines have driven cartels to staff their own scientists to control the process. They are literally transforming into an end-to-end manufacturer for two highly dangerous drugs.

When border security is relaxed and smuggling resumes at scale what is the threat? Given the cartels’ new capabilities forced by COVID-19 or small U.S. labs seizing an opportunity, stimulants that were already on an uptick now may be in even greater supply. Meth is a good bet.

On balance what does all this mean?

We learned from two nearly-overwhelming tragedies that their impacts are felt immediately and sustained for much longer. For some, the only way to cope is to join the 21 million other Americans with substance use disorders and cope chemically. Sadly, after weeks or months of uncertainty and stress we can assume that some of our coworkers will return with new or heightened substance dependencies. Think of it this way. Those 15 million chemically dependent people in the workforce before may be joined by more.

And consider this, Psychemedics data (graph) shows they may return to the workplace using those drugs that are nearly impossible to detect with many workplace drug screens.

That, above all else, is why these three things are things you should be thinking about. Now.

Part 3 Next Week:

“Playing Defense. Things To Know About Detection and Deterrence.”

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