Testing not enough for designer drugs

By Professor Jeremy Davey*
Thursday, 30 May, 2013

While designer drugs are one of the current hot topics in workplace drug and alcohol programs, we have to remember that the drugs that cause the most harm in the workplace are the drugs that cause the most harm in the community - and the first one is alcohol. I’m not trying to understate the potential harm of these designer drugs, but it’s important to firstly put it in context.

One of the primary reasons why some workers are using designer drugs is because they are difficult to detect. While some of the drugs can be detected, they are generally more difficult to detect and once you develop a mechanism to test for one drug, all they have to do is change a molecule and move to another drug that will still have the same effect and can’t be as easily detected.

What these new synthetic drugs have identified is actually one of the primary flaws of basing your whole drug and alcohol management strategy on testing. You only have to look at the history of sports performance enhancing drugs, which is based on testing, to see why. Once a certain substance was identified and banned, another substance appeared that wasn’t identified. And this still goes on and on.

If you look at other examples such as the drink driving program, yes, we have used drug testing as a deterrent but we have also spent a lot of time and energy on community education and changing the community’s opinions and attitudes about the behaviour, about driving drunk and about being impaired while driving - and this is where we have achieved a good return on our dollar.

Some workplace programs have tended to focus on the easy way out by getting an external drug tester to tick the boxes and this has been interpreted by the workers as you can’t get caught positive rather than thinking you shouldn’t turn up to work impaired and endanger both yourself and your fellow workers.

After nearly two decades of workplace drug testing, we have to shift to the next generation of workplace drug and alcohol strategies that are much smarter. I’m not saying we don’t test but we have got to say what else are we going to do - how do we change the culture? How do we change the opinion and behaviour of the workers?

The users of designer drugs (and any other drugs) have the potential to turn up to work impaired and are turning up to work impaired. So why are fellow workers accepting the impaired workers and why isn’t the work group saying this is enough?

More sophisticated programs that are tailored for the unique characteristics of the site and the workers at the site are needed to change the behaviours of the workplace. A good analogy to look at is how an engineering problem is solved at a mining or industrial site - the history, theory and traditional engineering will be looked at but the unique characteristic at the site will also be examined. Generally you find that workplaces that have a good comprehensive drug and alcohol program don’t have as many problems as those that rely solely on testing. We know that the combination of testing, education and cultural programs is a much more effective long-term strategy than just the concept of workplace testing.

*Professor Jeremy Davey is Deputy Director, Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety at Queensland University of Technology (CARRSQ). He has been a drug and alcohol researcher for over 20 years.

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