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Cocaine abuse in the workplace

The popularity of cocaine among employed drug users reached its peak during the 1980s. However, cocaine at work remains a major problem even today.

According to the 2019 National Drug Household Survey, cocaine use in Australia is at its highest level in almost two decades – up from 1% in 2004 to 4.2% in 2019. It has also been reported that Australians are the highest per capita users of cocaine in the world.

In this article, we provide you with an overview of cocaine, its effects, the impact of cocaine in the workplace, and how to manage cocaine abuse at work.

What is cocaine?

Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant drug that triggers temporary feelings of euphoria and increased energy. However, it also produces dangerous physical effects on the body.

Cocaine use originated in South America in the Andes. Indigenous people would often extract the substance from coca leaves and use it for different applications. These include triggering a boost of energy, suppressing appetite, and producing local anaesthetics and other medicines.

Cocaine was first extracted from the leaves of the coca bush in 1860 but recreational use became popular in the early 1900s when cocaine powder was available for snorting. This led to numerous cases of nasal damage and other adverse effects among abusers.

Taking a closer look at cocaine

The powdered form of cocaine, known as cocaine hydrochloride, can be consumed in one of several ways. These include:

  • Inhaling or snorting through the nose
  • Dissolving in water and injecting into the bloodstream
  • Rubbing into the gums
  • Mixing or adding into foods and drinks.

Crack is another infamous form of cocaine. It is a crystalline freebase extract of cocaine (often called rock crystals) and is the cocaine analogue of Ice. Smoking crack releases cocaine vapour which is very rapidly absorbed through the nasal lining creating a very rapid onset rush accompanied by a rapid rise in cocaine concentration in the blood. Like Ice, crack is highly addictive. 

Effects of cocaine on the body

The effects of cocaine can last somewhere between a couple of minutes and several hours. This often depends on the person using the drug and how much of the substance they’ve consumed. Some of the immediate effects include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased breathing and heart rate
  • Reduced appetite
  • Decreased fatigue, often with some improved strength and energy and lowered reaction times
  • Increased (and often exaggerated) confidence and talkativeness
  • Anxiety, which may progress into panic attacks
  • Paranoia, suspiciousness, hypervigilance
  • feeling of euphoria.

Some users experience a “crash”, especially when they binge on the drug or have been frequent long-term users. This causes them to feel extremely hungry, lethargic, and even depressed.

Cocaine use causes long-term effects such as insomnia and exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and paranoia. In some cases, it can also cause weight loss and eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, nasal damage, breathing difficulties, and psychosis.

The impact of cocaine use at work

Cocaine is a very addictive and harmful drug that can have a significant impact on the workplace. 

Employees who abuse the drug tend to be tardy and absent from work. They are also more prone to making poor judgments, which can significantly affect their performance.

The behaviour of a person who abuses cocaine at work is also of great concern. People who use the drug tend to be more aggressive toward others, they are harder to work with and pick fights with their co-workers. They also tend to borrow or steal money from their colleagues to buy drugs.

As with meth, impaired judgement is relatively common among cocaine users, often marked by decreased risk assessment and a tendency to drive at dangerously high rates of speed and aggressive driving behaviours, often with a loss of vehicular control as well as a disregard for safety precautions when handling heavy machinery. In the US, cocaine or cocaine metabolites (breakdown products) are found in the systems of around 5 to 24% of all people involved in serious traffic violations, vehicular accidents and vehicular fatalities.

During withdrawal from the cocaine high, there is a tendency to exhibit task-related impairment including confusion, lowered ability to shift focus from one task to another, difficulty following spoken or written directions, a distorted sense of time, inappropriately hostile reactions to specific events or general circumstances, loss of normal coordination and a moderate hypersensitivity to light leading to abnormal peripheral vision, poor glare tolerance and a reduced ability to focus on objects within the field of vision

The biggest concern is the threat cocaine abusers pose to the health and safety of everyone they work with. This is especially true of workers who operate vehicles or heavy equipment. 

Over the years, cocaine use at work has been blamed for numerous work-related accidents that have resulted in injuries and death. Such incidents can also cost employers a lot of money in legal expenses and Workers Compensation claims. 

Signs of cocaine abuse

Some of the signs and symptoms of cocaine abuse are:

  • Dilated pupils, sometimes also with bloodshot eyes
  • Runny nose and/or nosebleeds from snorting cocaine
  • Licking their lips frequently, occasionally rubbing their gums
  • Restless and distractable, often unable to sit or stand still
  • Talking endlessly, with topics unrelated to one another
  • Illogical arguments
  • Irritable, argumentative, and overflowing with confidence.
  • Uncommonly you will find track marks from injecting cocaine, or burned lips or fingers from smoking cocaine

What to do about cocaine at work

There is simply no better way to protect your business and the people who work for you than to develop and implement a solid drug and alcohol policy and procedure. The policy should include a drug and alcohol education and awareness program and a drug and alcohol testing program

Cocaine drug testing

Cocaine drug testing offers employers a credible way to address potential substance abuse in the workplace.

Cocaine screening is usually done using the following methods:

  • Urine drug testing – The most common method of testing not only for cocaine but for a host of other substances as well. Considered the most affordable of all cocaine drug testing methods, urine can detect traces of cocaine for 5 days up to a week, which will cover the entire initial and withdrawal phases (the latter being significantly associated with performance impairment). It is, however, regarded by some as an invasive way of cocaine testing.
  • Oral fluid (saliva) drug testing – This type of testing may be a bit more expensive than urine tests, but many employers are switching to this testing method because it’s regarded as one of the least invasive. Although it is easily administered, saliva cocaine testing can detect use primarily within the past 2 days but may be as long as 4 days in heavy users. Unfortunately, this will cover much of the acute impairment period but will not cover it entirely – only urine testing will do that. The problem with oral fluid detection of cocaine use is that cocaine secretion into saliva is affected by the pH of the saliva – so it is relatively easy to ensure cocaine will not be detected by altering the acidity of the oral fluid (lists of the foods to take/chew within an hour of testing are available on the net). 
  • Hair follicle drug testing – The most expensive cocaine testing method, hair testing is better at detecting cocaine use over a longer period of time. In fact, with hair testing, brief breaks from using cocaine have little to no bearing on the results. It can detect cocaine use from 10 to 14 days after use up to 90 days or more (depending on the length of the hair).

Learn more

Safework Health can help you keep your workplace safe from drugs and alcohol. Contact us today for a confidential discussion.


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