The COVID-19 restrictions are impacting the lives of many Australians, including those engaged in illicit drug use.
With the government limiting the public’s movement, it’s a lot harder to buy drugs these days.
So what does this mean for drug abuse in the workplace? Can we really expect it to go down?
In a sense, Australia has been here before. During the late 1990’s the local availability of heroin increased markedly, leading to a steep rise in heroin use.
In January 2001, the heroin bubble burst and the amount of drugs available in Australia declined to levels seen 6 years previously. New South Wales, considered as the largest heroin market in the country, saw drug prices skyrocket. People had a hard time getting their hands on illicit drugs, while the purity level of drugs at the street level fell dramatically.
Because of the drop in heroin supply, the number of overdose deaths due to the drug fell by as much as 67%.
While heroin use declined at the time, drug injections involving other drugs increase significantly. Cocaine was the drug of choice in NSW, while amphetamines and benzodiazepines were very popular in Victoria. There were also reports that IV drug users were engaging in riskier forms of injections (Degenhardt et al 2005, 2006).
The Impact of COVID-19 on Drug Use
Methadone and Buprenorphine
With the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Australians feared any unnecessary exposure to coronavirus.
In Victoria, the government (Victoria Health 2020) issued new guidelines to allow pharmacies to offer takeaway methadone and buprenorphine doses. Administration of the drugs will be dome earlier in patients’ drug rehabilitation therapy.
However, the move led to an increase in local availability for both methadone and buprenorphine. There are concerns that the drugs might find their way onto the streets as soon as lock-down measures are lifted.
Fentanyl and Other High-Potency Opiate Analogues
Australia does not make its own heroin – most of our supply comes from counties in Southeast Asia. If the availability of heroin continues to drop, users are likely to switch to other drugs such as fentanyl and other high-potency opiate analogues.
Fentanyl is a popular alternative to heroin. Abusers use the drug because of its higher potency compared to heroin. It’s a lot easier to transport in smaller amounts as well. Drug users also prefer using fentanyl because it still not covered in any drug testing standards (McGowan 2018).
Australia already has an opioid addiction problem. Drug rehabilitation specialists are concerned the problem will get worse (McGowan 2020).
Regulators are also growing concerned about the widespread use of methamphetamine. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Australians used cocaine as a higher-prestige, safer alternative to methamphetamine. But the drop in cocaine supplies due to COVID-19 is likely to force abusers to switch back to a more readily available stimulant, such as methamphetamine, for their drug use.
Australia also doesn’t produce its own supply of cocaine. However, it does make its own methamphetamine and in large amounts.
Just recently, Victoria Police responded to a truck accident in Melbourne that killed four officers. Authorities suspect the driver may have been using methamphetamine leading up to the incident. This suggests that methamphetamine use at work is still a big problem in the country.
As Howell (2018) noted, an established drug screening culture in the workplace does substantially reduce drug use among the target population.
Meanwhile, Roman and Blum (1992) examined the sociohistorical pattern of employer and worker responses to drug abuse in the US over the past 20 years. The researchers found that drug use rates are likely to increase significantly if drug screening procedures are relaxed.
Importance of Workplace Drug Testing
As long as social distancing is in effect, we can expect overall illicit drug use rates in Australia to be lower. However, the changing availability of drugs and the ongoing methamphetamine and opioid problem are likely to drive up drug use again.
In fact, if your workers have been away from the office, they may have established a new substance abuse routine for themselves. Just consider how easy this is with readily available alcohol, opioids and, as discussed, methamphetamine.
How prepared is your company’s drug and alcohol screening program for your employees to return to work?