Substance abuse is one of the most onerous plagues facing mechanical contractors. It decreases productivity and morale, and increases turnover and absenteeism. Accidents, theft and insurance costs go up, while profits go down.

A fascinating seminar by industrial security specialist Eugene Ferraro at this year’s MCAA Convention zeroed in on the stark fact that the average workplace is an ideal setting for drug commerce. Advantages include —

  • Better quality. Buyers tend to get a better deal at the office or jobsite than they do on the street. Workplace dealers want repeat business and thus have an incentive to keep purity higher than they do when dealing with infrequent customers.
  • Better quantity. Same principle. Illegal drugs are expensive. On the street, dealers have a tendency to “short weight” customers, selling as one-gram packets that weigh maybe 3/4 gram. Co-workers tend to get a better deal.
  • Low risk. The typical workplace is a safe spot to use and sell drugs. Most supervisors are untrained to recognize the signs. Restrooms and enclosed offices offer privacy. Walls, fences and locked doors not only provide internal security for the business, but also protect employees from the peering eyes of management and co-workers.
  • High return on investment. Employee-dealers typically start out as casual users. They turn to dealing either as a way to subsidize their own drug use and/or make extra money. We’re talking BIG money. See “The Economics of Drug Dealing” at the conclusion of this article.
  • Credit terms. Street drug transactions tend to be strictly in cash. But dealers will often “front” drugs to co-workers with confidence they’ll get paid back — usually on payday.

As in any other line of business, credit sometimes becomes exhausted. This often happens when abusers acquire a habit beyond their ability to support through honest wages. This is when they are apt to turn into dealers themselves, or they may turn to theft, with the principal victim being the employer.

Rationalization: Ferraro, who claims to have interviewed more than 5,000 substance abusers, punctured a hole in one common myth among employers. Most drug abusers are not addicts in the true sense of the word. He estimated that fewer than 1 percent of employees are chemically dependent on drugs.

Instead, most drug abusers do it for kicks and end up with some degree of psychological dependency. They tend not to see anything wrong with their behavior. They rationalize that drug laws infringe on their constitutional rights, that addiction happens only to someone else, and that the drugs they use enhance their performance. They rationalize that they can quit anytime, that it’s OK because everybody does it, and that selling drugs to co-workers is a gesture of friendship.

“The lies and deception that shroud the abusers allow them to rationalize away their values and personal responsibility, as well as respect for other people and their property,” says Ferraro. “This insidious process permits them to lie to their spouse and family, steal from their friends and employer, and continue to use drugs at the expense of themselves and all those around them without guilt.

“Rationalization is one of the most powerful survival mechanisms the drug abuser has and every drug abuser eventually learns to master it.”

How powerful is this instinct? Ferraro noted that years ago to combat drunk driving, California started setting up sobriety checkpoints at unannounced locations. All motorists passing at a given time had to undergo sobriety tests. Later, the California Supreme Court ruled that these checkpoints were unconstitutional unless motorists were informed in advance of their locations. So signs sprouted up throughout the state informing drivers of “Sobriety Checkpoint Ahead.”

Most people assumed this would undercut the effectiveness of the program. But according to Ferraro, there has been virtually no change in the percentage of drivers found to be impaired at these checkpoints, around 10 percent. He attributes it to the power of rationalization. Drug abusers simply fail to perceive that they might be caught and called to account.

Functional Abusers: Alcohol, marijuana and cocaine are the most common workplace drugs, although Ferraro maintains that cocaine is rapidly being replaced as a user favorite by methamphetamine. Methamphetamine is a stimulant with similar effects to cocaine, but cheaper and with effects lasting four to eight hours rather than cocaine’s 10- to 20-minute bursts of euphoria.

Users of stimulants such as methamphetamine or cocaine present special problems to employers. In the short term stimulants may actually make employees more alert, eager and productive. Stimulant users often become “functional abusers,” who have their good days and bad days. Their performance tends to be inconsistent but on the whole not bad enough to warrant termination.

Over the long run, the negatives far outweigh the momentary gains. Stimulant abusers tend to suffer mood swings. They often appear irritable and may try to control their moods by countering the stimulant with a “downer” type drug, mainly alcohol or marijuana. Some thus become “poly-addicted” to more than drugs.

Ferraro encourages employers to sign up with EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) to help employees overcome drug addiction or dependency. At the same time he acknowledges that treatment programs do not have a very high cure rate.

To protect themselves and their businesses, employers must recognize the prevalence of drugs in the workplace and be on the lookout for it. When warning signs do show up, as Ferraro put it, “document, document, document.”

The Economics Of Drug Dealing

Pull away the curtain of moral and legal restraint, and drug dealing gets revealed as an enormously profitable entrepreneurial enterprise.

Case in point: cocaine, a favorite jobsite perker-upper, generally “snorted,” i.e., inhaled through the nose. Coke typically gets sold at retail in easily concealed one-gram packets selling for around $100. To stretch profits, dealers usually cut the purity to around 50 percent by mixing in milk sugar, flour or some other ingestible foodstuff similar in color and texture to powdered cocaine.

Dealers typically buy cocaine in wholesale increments of one ounce, which sells for around $1,000. An ounce contains 28 grams. Now let’s do a little business arithmetic.

1 oz. (28 g) = $1,000 = 100% purity 1 gram = $100 = 50% purity 28 g + 28 g (from dilution) = 56 g 56 x $100 = $5,600 sales revenues

$5,600 - $1,000 direct cost = $4,600 profit (460%)

In a workforce of 100 employees or more, a single employee dealer can move an ounce of cocaine a week through direct sales and networking. Pretty soon his paycheck becomes pocket change. The only reason to hang on to the job is to keep in touch with regular customers.

Pretty tempting to go astray, don’t you think?