This article first appeared in People Management magazine, October 2014
The stereotypical image of the workplace drug user is the coke-snorting executive of Hollywood cliché, darting to the bathroom between meetings. But in the internet age, the reality is a little bit more complex: getting your hands on so-called ‘legal highs’ (substances not controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act) is as easy as a Google search. And their increasing popularity among young people means there’s every chance one of your employees is riding the ‘magic dragon’ or floating on ‘bubble buds’.
“Most companies’ substance misuse policies will focus on the historical drugs of abuse; things like cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, amphetamines, benzodiazepines and cannabis, known as the 6-panel,” says Danny Clarke head of occupational health at ELAS Business Support and board member of the European Workplace Drug Testing Society.
“But generally, most panels won’t test for the hundreds of variants of ‘legal’ substances that are passed through the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs.”
Legal highs cannot be sold for human consumption but are marketed as products such as bath salts. Some mimic the effects of cannabis or other illegal substances.
According to the latest Global Drug Survey, 20 per cent of British respondents admitted they had on occasion taken drugs within two hours of going to work, but these statistics are likely to be higher given the many substances falling below the radar, Clarke suggests.
“Sometimes there’s a test for these legal highs but only really when they become illegal are we asked to look for them,” says John Gunn, director at employment screening company European Background. He points to spice (synthetic marijuana), ketamine, and mephedrone as examples of drugs that were once considered ‘legal highs’ but have been reclassified in recent years.
More thorough workplace testing kits are available at a reasonable price, says Gunn, if your organisation wants to go down that route. But often it’s about better training for line managers, who are tasked with detecting the signs of abuse, and a robust HR policy.
“You should include wording along the lines of ‘we reserve the right to test for any type of substance; anything that might harm well-being or performance at work’,” says Clarke. “You also need to define what is considered drug abuse. Is it the use of illegal substances? Or do you go as far as to say it’s misuse of prescription drugs and general retail medications?” Including a cut-off level in the policy is helpful to determine when consuming a substance can be considered gross misconduct. “A lot of painkillers, for example, show up as opiates, so we would then have a medical review to determine how much pain medication someone is taking and if there was an underlying issue to address,” Gunn says.
Aron Pope, partner at Fox Williams, recommends reactive drug testing, which means being able to spot the signs: “If an employee has been abusive to colleagues, that might be grounds for a disciplinary; if they are making mistakes because they are unable to concentrate, that may be grounds for a capability procedure. The drug test could reveal an underlying issue, but the actions taken by the employee will be enough to raise concern and prompt a performance management process.”