Mention ‘drugs’, and most of our minds turn to potent, illegal substances: cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and MDMA. The list goes on. Easily spotted and relatively simple to legislate against, these drugs are a problem in the workplace. But users’ tastes for drugs are changing.
Today, legal highs are more widely available than ever before. New psychoactive substances – chemically altered versions of outlawed drugs – have hit the national headlines, the Spice epidemic being the latest in a long line of designer drugs widely reported in the mainstream media. And now prescription medicine abuse is becoming more prevalent.In 2017, the UK saw an alarming rise in cases involving anxiety medicine Xanax, particularly among young people.
Dangerously addictive, Xanax is powerful and easy to buy. What do you need to know about the drug, and how should you respond to incidents at which you suspect an employee might be under its influence?
Drug of choice
As with other drugs, the rise and rise of Xanax use in the UK follows use trends in the US, where it is the twelfth most common drug prescribed by doctors. Today, the UK market absorbs 22% of Xanax traffic – second in the world to our US cousins.
While Xanax is widely available on the streets – often for as little as £1 per tablet – most sales are made online. UK users can buy from both the normal and ‘dark’ web, from suppliers operating in, or travelling to, countries where the drug is available for purchase from pharmacies. These include the US, Mexico and Canada. In the UK, tablets are only available on private prescription, and not the NHS.
Police estimate that up to 130 million Xanax tablets have entered the UK criminal system since 2014. In past months, use of the drug has reached epidemic levels – claiming its most prominent victim with the death of US rapper Lil Peep.
In 2017, enquiries about Benzodiazepines – the drug family to which Xanax belongs – were the second most common received by UK drug counselling service Frank, after opioids and above antidepressants and steroids.
To make matters worse, the Xanax market is swamped by fake pills – with some tablets found to contain “acid, heavy metals and even floor polish.” Mixing the drug with alcohol is extremely dangerous, and many counterfeit pills are found to also contain the anaesthetic Fentanyl.
Symptoms, and how to spot them
Xanax is the product name given to Alzaprolam by manufacturer Pfizer. As a tranquilliser, the drug is 10 times more powerful than diazepam and 20 times stronger than valium, functioning by binding to GABA[A] receptors in the brain.
Designed to alleviate anxiety and depression, Xanax’s desired effect is to calm the user. The side effects are more disturbing. Users report the following symptoms, which start 20-40 minutes after ingesting a tablet:
- Muscle numbness
- Drowsiness and mental dullness
- Reduced hearing
- Blurred vision
- Poor coordination
- Amnesia, including loss of long-term memory
- Stomach pains
- Cold sweats
- Extreme paranoia
- Hostile and irritable behaviour
- Impaired judgement and reduced inhibitions
- Disturbed dreams
Users often experience sustained blackouts, performing activities which they later have no recollection of. The drug is highly addictive and withdrawal can be fatal if not properly managed.
Today, many UK users of the drug are students at school and university, for whom Xanax is a fast, cheap way to relieve tension. Usage is particularly prevalent among those self-medicating for mental health issues.
Unlike cannabis and other drugs, Xanax requires no special equipment for use. Instead, employers should look for the symptoms above and empty pill bottles – especially those with an unknown person’s name on them.
Why is Xanax a problem in the workplace?
Xanax users are often dangerously unaware of their thoughts and actions towards themselves and others.
This is problematic in any workplace – not least those involving machinery or moving vehicles, like manufacturing, aviation or construction. For those in customer-facing roles, employee drug misuse can badly affect a business’ brand by affecting employees’ behaviour towards others.
In the UK, possession of Xanax without a prescription is illegal, as is supply of the substance. Employees using the drug in or around the workplace break their fiduciary duty to arrive and operate at work in a fit, non-inebriated state. Employers who knowingly allow the use of drugs on their premises could also find themselves in breach UK drug laws.
Beyond the legal implications of Xanax misuse in the workplace, many employers will want to protect affected employees from substance addiction – damaging as it is to employees’ potential for health and happiness beyond the workplace.
How can you guard against drug use in your organisation?
Protecting teams from Xanax misuse – and that involving other drugs – involves two elements: a Substance and Alcohol Misuse Policy (SAMP) and Programme of Testing (POT).
A SAMP is a document that clearly and comprehensively sets out the behaviours expected of employees regarding drugs and alcohol in the workplace, how your organisation will deal with suspected abuse, and the processes by which employees can appeal against judgements made regarding themselves.
A POT is built on the guidelines offered by the SAMP. It is the system by which employers test for their employees’ drug and alcohol use, and can involve various test methods depending on the needs of your organisation.
Most commonly, a POT will provide for urine, saliva or hair testing. Many workplaces use the first two of these via Point of Care (POC) systems. These tests can be done on-site and offer results within minutes.
POC tests have limitations, however, which are especially relevant in the case of Xanax misuse. For one, presumptive positive POC results require employers to stand their employee down and to conduct a second lab test to confirm the results of the POC test. This results in up to seven days’ lost productivity, while the lab processes the result. POC tests have a shorter window of detection than lab tests and can detect a smaller number of substances.
Significantly, POC tests only indicate when a donor has used a substance from a family of drugs, as opposed to a specific one. When a POC test indicates that an employee has used a Benzodiazepine, this could, therefore, mean a legal substance like valium or an illegal, non-prescribed one like Xanax. A lab test is required to confirm the exact substance detected.
Importantly, many POC tests for Benzodiazepines are designed to detect Oxazepam, as opposed to Alprazolam (Xanax). This means that – unless checked – a POC test may not be able to demonstrate Xanax use in any case.
As with any drug misuse in the workplace, you first have to make the commitment to deal with the issue. Knowing your workplace has a drugs problem is one thing, doing something about it is entirely another. The bottom line is, you need to do what’s right for the business.
At Cansford Labs, we’ve responded to POC limitations by designing the UK’s fastest lab testing service for employers – offering accurate drugs and alcohol testing within 48 hours of receipt of a sample at our premises. In this way, organisations can use lab testing as an alternative to POC testing in many circumstances.
To find out more about our 48-hour lab testing programme, and the substances we test for, visit Tox247.co.uk.
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