There are two certainties about drug use; people want to get intoxicated, and, as long as people want to get high, there will be someone to supply it.

Robert “Bobby” Manuel, rotating equipment specialist for Huntsman Corporation, informed VPPPA conference attendees about the wealth of new synthetic, designer drugs that are making it to the black market every day and how employers can recognize signs of drug use.

With marijuana legislation at the forefront and the burgeoning opioid epidemic in headlines nearly every day, Manuel stressed the importance of being involved with employees and encouraging them to seek help if the worker has an addiction.

Manuel began with a simple chart showing how drug overdose deaths alarmingly are climbing 30 percent per year – in stark contrast to deaths from gun violence, which remain steady year-over-year.

“It may not be the people under your roof, but it may be your extended family, an uncle, cousin or friend,” he said. “Everyone knows someone with a drug problem.

About 68.9 percent of drug users are employed and active in the workforce, many of them prescription drug users. While prescription drugs can be found in standard drug testing, new synthetic drugs cannot.

This is concerning for companies, especially in high-risk areas such as construction or chemical manufacturing, Manuel said.

“Any drug in the industrial setting is dangerous,” he said.

Drug producers are designing new synthetic versions of well-known substances every day. Typically, producers will research decades-old drug patents that never made it to market develop a product to sell on the streets.

“If it’s been patented, they can look at the molecular compounds and mimic them,” he explained.

Manuel went into deal about the following drugs and the issues they are posing in the workforce.

Marijuana
THC levels have risen steadily as growers develop new strands. Researchers have found levels as high as 37 percent in newer varieties, compared to the marijuana of the 1960s and 70s which only had around 17 percent. While legislation poses different challenges, federal mandates still supersede any states that allow it. However, synthetic versions of marijuana could have similar effects as bath salts, making it more dangerous than its plant-derived counterpart.

Flakka
Flakka is a synthetic psychoactive drug considered the “new version of bath salts.” It is also known as the zombie drug because of the user’s stupor after consumption.  Manufactured in China, the drug caused a media uproar in early August after a man stabbed a couple and began to eat another man’s face while under the influence.

K2/Spice
Previously legal, the side effects of smoking K2/Spice include anxiety, agitation, nausea, hallucinations, paranoia or possible violence. Manuel recounted the story of a truck driver who caused a deadly crash while smoking K2.

Molly
Drug producers constantly are changing the chemical makeup of molly, which is a synthetic form of ecstasy. Users experience euphoria, but the increased heart rate that comes with taking Molly could cause death as well.

Opioids
After explaining the current designer drugs that are causing issues, Manuel explained how the growing opioid epidemic still has not hit its peak.

“Here is where the real problem lies in our society right now,” he said.

The rise of opioid use began about five years ago after legislators cracked down on prescription drug “pill mills.” Because it became harder to find doctors to write scripts, people began to look to the streets for illicit solutions.

Heroin is shipped in from foreign countries, but when the supplies run low, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are substituted. This compounds the issue because substances like fentanyl, which is 80 times more powerful than morphine, could cause to overdose at an alarming rate.

Seeking Treatment

So, what should employees do if they notice a co-worker has become addicted to alcohol or other drugs?

Because synthetic drugs are hard to find with a simple drug test, recognizing symptoms is key. Watch for increased heart rate, blood pressure or sudden changes in mood or behavior.

The best thing an employee can do is tell their supervisor and that supervisor, in turn, can sit down with the suspected user or send them home.

In the end, this is what the worker might need to seek help, Manuel said. Drug abuse can happen in any profession, and keeping the workplace a safe and productive is the ultimate goal.

“The thing you can do is see who is coming into your gate and how they’re acting because it can have devastating effects,” Manuel said. “It’s not a pleasant thing to have to say something to someone, but it may help somebody.”