Alcohol, marijuana and cocaine stand at the threshold to the world of drugs.
By Chris Marsh
Chris Marsh is a trainer in alcohol and drug education programs and provides outreach education for OSHA.
The term “gateway drugs” is not a buzzword for some trance-inducing narcotics used by spiritualists to reach the ethereal plane. Rather, gateway drugs are those that draw people into the drug culture and tempt them to use other, stronger drugs.
More than 70 percent of drug users in the United States are currently employed, and with rising employment and escalating substance abuse rates, the possibility that you may currently employ a drug user or will hire one increases as well. These employees are more likely to have attendance problems and be involved in workplace accidents and/or workers’ compensation claims. Understanding how gateway drugs affect the users’ physical and emotional health is the first step in developing a comprehensive drug-free policy at your plant.
The three drugs most commonly categorized as gateway drugs are alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. Cocaine may seem to be out of place here compared with alcohol and marijuana, but this article refers to the less formidable powder cocaine rather than its much more potent and dangerous counterpart known as rock cocaine or crack cocaine.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these gateway drugs and how they may affect workers on and off the job.
Alcohol is legal in the United States only for people over the age of 21 – no state allows drinking under 21.
In the United States, a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent alcohol makes a driver guilty of a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) offense. Most states have a lower BAC for underage drivers to be considered DUI or DWI. The Department of Transportation mandates that a Commercial Driver License (CDL) holder with a 0.02 BAC must be off active duty status for 24 hours. When the driver returns to duty in 24 hours, he or she must test under 0.02 BAC. If the driver’s BAC is 0.04 or higher, he or she must go to a substance abuse professional for an assessment to determine the extent of a drinking problem. The driver will then have to go to some type of treatment program for rehabilitation.
A drink is classified as one 12-ounce beer, 4 to 5 ounces of wine, or one mixed drink containing 1.25 to 1.5 ounces of alcohol (the higher the proof of the mixed drink, the less alcohol is needed to be counted as a drink). It is commonly accepted that a man weighing 160 to 190 pounds has a 0.02 BAC for each drink he takes, so four drinks will yield about a 0.08 BAC, which rates a DUI if he’s driving. This reading would be given about one hour after he finishes drinking. Women will test higher given the same approximate weight.
If a male drinks a six-pack of beer in one or two hours, he could expect to have a 0.10 BAC or higher, again depending on weight. A man over 200 pounds will register less than a 0.10. A 150-pound woman would have about a 0.13 or higher BAC after drinking the six-pack in the same time period. A 120-pound woman could measure 0.17 or higher.
Alcohol leaves the body at between 0.01 and 0.015 grams per hour after being metabolized by the liver. A 180-pound man who registers 0.08 requires six to eight hours to get all the alcohol out of his body. If his BAC peaks at midnight, it is possible that he could still have a positive BAC when he returns to work the next morning at 7 a.m. This is why a person’s breath still smells of alcohol, even though he or she may have had nothing to drink before bedtime. The liver is still metabolizing the alcohol to remove it from the body. That does not mean you should discount this if it happens – the person should not be operating a motorized vehicle.
Marijuana, which comes from the Cannabis sativa plant, has been around for a long time. Some sources state that marijuana residue or seeds were found in the pyramids in Egypt, meaning the drug was used at least 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.
The leaves and flowering tops of the plant can be dried and smoked. Sometimes hashish, the resin of Cannabis sativa, is smoked also. The major cause of the resulting high comes from delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Marijuana contains more than 420 chemicals, and the smoke contains more than 2,000 chemicals.
Marijuana lodges in the fat cells of humans. Because of this, it stays in the body for up to 28 days for a semiregular user. Marijuana has been bred by plant breeders to produce more THC to make it stronger. Now, one “joint” is the equivalent of six to 10 beers, but back in the ’70s, the strength equalled about one or two beers.
Also, in the 1970s, users said that pot was a safe high. It couldn’t give you lung cancer like cigarettes, or you were not a danger on the road when smoking pot. Scientists have since found that smoking one joint is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes in regards to damage to the lungs. Reaction times are distorted along with time and distance estimates while using marijuana. This makes the pot smoker a danger on the road. There are also reports that marijuana can cause the driver to have problems with tracking or staying alert long enough to come out of a curve.
Marijuana can also affect normal hormone functions in both males and females. This can cause a lowering of fertility and even miscarriages.
Another problem with marijuana is the effect it produces on the brain. The drug has a tendency to cause loss of memory for short periods of time. It also reduces motivation in heavy users. Studies have shown that users exhibit a lack of concentration and short-term memory loss.
Long-term users have these same problems, but they are more harmful. The long-term users actually become less motivated to do things. They do not want to hold a job or are not able to concentrate long enough to focus on long-term projects. In chronic long-term users, a psychological condition known as “amotivational syndrome” occurs. This is the description used when smokers become apathetic and listless. Another term for the same condition is “burnout.”
A controversy in the recovery community is the use of marijuana for medical treatment. There is anecdotal evidence that marijuana can help people with glaucoma and as an antinausea agent for people in chemotherapy treatment. In regards to glaucoma, eye pressure is reduced for a period of time following use but does not stay down over the course of a day. Many people talk about how well they feel after smoking a joint following chemotherapy treatments or medicine for HIV or AIDS. They were able to eat again and not feel as nauseated.
Most people have heard of users smoking a joint. However, some marijuana users are now using “blunts.” A blunt is a cigar that has had all the tobacco removed and filled with marijuana. If you ask at many convenience stores for some blunt paper, you may be surprised at what you get. Companies are actually making rolling papers the size of cigars in addition to cigarette-sized rolling papers.
Cocaine is a stimulant to the brain and is similar to amphetamines and methamphetamines. Cocaine affects the brain by going to its pleasure center of the brain and specifically causing a release of dopamine from the neurotransmitters. It is highly addictive, especially in the freebase form, and can lead users to experiment with other drugs.
Cocaine comes from the coca plant, which is found in South America in the Andes mountains. The coca plant seems to have been a mainstay of the Mayan civilization when the people used it for endurance in their travels. The juice in the plant gave them more endurance on long journeys and while traveling at high altitudes. In the more recent past, cocaine was used as an anesthetic in surgery. Sigmund Freud, who invented psychoanalysis, actually recommended that patients use cocaine to make themselves feel better. He also recommended it to his friends and even to his fiancé.
In the 1970s, cocaine use was used mostly by the wealthy, especially movie stars and rock stars. One of the main reasons was the high cost, but as more and more cocaine found its way into the United States, the price of powder went down and more people were able to afford it. And the price continues to decrease because of the tremendous supply.
Cocaine users show few signs of physical dependence, but psychological dependence is high. Stimulants in general and cocaine in particular cause the user to have a higher heart rate and a reduced appetite. Stimulants can cause higher blood pressure and make the user feel more powerful and invincible. Users are able to stay awake for long periods of time while under the influence of the drug.
There is an intense compulsion to continue to use the drug even after the addict realizes that there might be a problem. Cocaine causes the brain to want more because of the dopamine that is released and the euphoria it provides. Psychologically, the addict wants more and will pay any price to get it.
After long-term use, cocaine or stimulant users can become paranoid and have other psychological problems. It can also cause anxiety and panic attacks. In some cases, as the users come off cocaine use, they can go into a depressed state. They become lethargic and unable to feel pleasure because they have exhausted the dopamine in their brains.
With drug abuse and employment rates both on the rise, the chances of putting a drug user on the payroll has likewise increased. Now is a good time to develop a comprehensive drug-free policy or review your exisiting one. Your efforts not only will help provide a safe work environment, they will keep the gateway shut that leads to even stronger drugs.
Chris E. Marsh, who owns Ogeechee Training Service in Statesboro, Ga., provides alcohol and drug education programs for a drug-free workplace and also is authorized to provide OSHA outreach education. He can be reached at (912) 865-4500 or by e-mail.