The issue of synthetic drugs in the community is having a trickle-on effect into Queensland’s mining and resources workforces. The National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre clears the haze surrounding synthetic drugs, discussing the drain they have on society, workplace safety and health.
The death of two men in Mackay earlier this year brought into focus the very real danger synthetic cannabis poses in Queensland and right across the country. Despite changes to state and federal laws in recent years, emerging psychoactive substances like synthetic cannabis continue to be a safety issue for heavy industry in Queensland, with treatment for synthetic drug-related illnesses in Mackay said to be causing more and more hospitalisations.
A recent online survey of more than 1700 Australians, many just starting out in their careers, uncovered a range of disturbing stories from people who had tried synthetic cannabis, with numerous anecdotes of hospitalisations, seizures, overwhelming anxiety and paranoia. In the survey, conducted by the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC) at UNSW, users described the side effects they experienced while using the drug as terrifying, and many felt as though they were going to die.
Although any chemicals designed to mimic the effects of cannabis or used to make up synthetic cannabis were banned in 2012, West Australian Opposition Leader Mark McGowan recently proved to the public that synthetic cannabis is still readily available and very easy to buy throughout the state.
McGowan described the dangerous and addictive substances as “rife throughout our community” after buying a sample himself from a local shop, and then publically naming several shops he knew were continuing to sell synthetic cannabis despite state and federal legislation, which has outlawed the use, sale and possession of the drug.
Western Australia is far from alone in its battle to control and ban the substances – it seems the illicit distribution and sale of synthetic cannabis is still occurring on a national scale.
In 2013, Queensland also banned any product designed to imitate the effects of a chemical already outlawed as a dangerous drug.
Since then, Queensland Police have conducted a series of raids on businesses that continued to sell the drugs, including adult shops, brothels and convenience stores. And it’s not just a problem reserved for capital cities, as these products are easily found across regional and remote Queensland as well. Earlier this year, raids of shops selling synthetic cannabis were carried out in Mackay, Rockhampton, Toowoomba and Bundaberg, where a number of synthetic cannabis products were seized.
UNDERSTANDING SYNTHETIC CANNABIS
Synthetic cannabis is a product designed to mimic the effects and ‘high’ of the cannabis plant. Manufacturers spray man-made chemicals onto various types of dried plant material and often sell in commercial-looking packaging, marketed with various names, such as Spice, Kronic, Kalma, Voodoo, Kaos, Trainwreck, Full Moon or Mango Kush.
The potency and chemical combinations can vary from batch to batch, so it is very difficult to identify exactly what chemicals a product contains. Synthetic cannabis is often ordered online or sold illegally through adult shops, tobacconists or even convenience stores as herbal highs or pot pourri.
IDENTIFYING HEALTH IMPLICATIONS
Synthetic cannabis can cause a wide range of negative side effects in users, from nausea, headaches and vomiting right through to seizures, brain swelling, renal failure, and even death. People have also reported side effects including chest pains, heart palpitations, hallucinations, paranoia, and anxiety.
Some users have described having suicidal thoughts when high and feelings of acute depression when ‘coming down’ from using the drug, which in some cases can last for weeks. A dose of the drug from one batch can have little to no effect on a user, while the same dose from a different (or even the same batch) batch can result in a very adverse reaction in another, so people are often unaware of the risks until it’s too late.
As the drugs are considered emerging substances, they haven’t been around long enough for the medical profession to know exactly what the long-term health implications of use may be. Some doctors report they are struggling to keep up with so many new drugs emerging, and with different symptoms presented during an overdose or adverse reaction, they are often unsure of how to proceed with treatment when cases are presented in the emergency room.
WHAT’S THE ATTRACTION?
Research recently conducted by NCPIC found the leading reasons people chose to use synthetics were due to confusion over the legal status of the drug, or to avoid detection at work through traditional workplace drug testing. In fact, 23 per cent of recent users thought that synthetic cannabis was still legal in Australia despite the fact it has been illegal in every state and territory since 2011.
Perhaps the most common reason was also the most surprising: 65 per cent of people surveyed tried synthetic cannabis “just to see what it was like”. So why does curiosity and opportunity play such a big role synthetic drug use?
In the Australian resources sector, industries such as mining are reputed to offer the opportunity to earn good money for a hard day of work. The only downside being mines are often quite remote, meaning many fly-in fly-out miners will live in relatively isolated mining towns, separated from their friends, families and their usual means for entertaining themselves on a Saturday night.
As with traditional cannabis, the boredom that can ensue in downtime – which can be considerable given multiple day on and off shifts – can often be a driver for sourcing drugs. Add to this a new-found flow of cash and shifts that can mean sleep is difficult to find, and some miners basically find they have a self-written prescription for drug use.
While traditionally the drug of choice may have been cannabis, the introduction of previously legal synthetic cannabis provided an option to relax and pass the hours during downtime, with no risk of blowing a drug test.
While not alone with this issue, the mining sector certainly is unique, in that for many, mining becomes a lifestyle as opposed to just a job. For some, smoking drugs like synthetic cannabis becomes a crutch they rely on to manage the stresses of the job, the need for sleep or just the excess cash and the time spent alone with nothing else to do.
Building on the high risk associated with miners is the fact that often towns or facilities grow around mining camps, with entrepreneurs seeing an opportunity to thrive on the needs of the somewhat captive market. With the right connections, this can mean that local businesses are able to add new products and new profit margins to their existing repertoire.
SYNTHETIC CANNABIS & THE WORKFORCE
Having employees show up to work with any of the side effects listed will mean they are a danger, not only to themselves, but also to others around them. When the operation of heavy machinery is involved, or the need for sound decision-making, the safety implications could be potentially devastating.
Beyond the immediate symptoms of synthetic cannabis use, are the potentially more far-reaching and life-threatening ongoing effects. With drugs like synthetic cannabis only relatively new and chemicals varying from batch-to-batch, little is known about the long-term damage users may be causing to their brains or their bodies – but with five deaths in Mt Isa alone over recent years now attributed to synthetic cannabis, it is obvious the negative effects can be tragically permanent.
NCPIC’s online survey reinforced this fact, with people sharing many stories relating to frightening side effects. Notably, though evidence doesn’t yet exist to support it, survey respondents also identified the powerfully addictive nature of synthetic cannabis, highlighting how surprisingly rapidly addiction took hold, how consuming it was and how difficult it was to let go of the drug.
While drug use before or during work may present potential danger, the death or serious injury of an employee outside of the workspace can also have extensive implications for anything from workplace morale to corporate reputation.
CLEARING THE HAZE: AWARENESS, PREVENTION & ONGOING EDUCATION
While drug testing is seen as an important strategy for detection and prevention for some companies, it should only be used as one part of a wider drug strategy. It has taken some time for drug testing technology to come close to catching up with synthetic substances, and by the time an employee tests positive a lot of damage can already be done.
Ensuring the workplace has an open and proactive attitude towards drug use is crucial in maintaining high standards of safety. For most organisations, decreasing drug use through education is largely about finding the right combination of top down messaging and policy, and bottom up self-regulation and engagement. While industries like mining are not unique in this regard, the fact the nature of the lifestyle itself – the hours, the pay, the boredom, the isolation – is so conducive with drug use, does present an array of distinctive challenges that must be addressed.
In terms of the basics, the induction process is an obvious place to start when establishing a drug-free culture. It’s the first touch-point with an employee, and certainly the first opportunity to impress upon them what is expected of them, and what is not acceptable.
But during induction, heavy and wordy workplace drug policies are often just one document in a pile of documents pushed at a new employee – so the expectation that the employee will read it, let alone live and work by it may be a little far-fetched. In this sense, induction processes need to place more emphasis on drug education, making it interesting, engaging and most importantly, unforgettable.
To round off the basics, drug education should be ongoing and everyone should feel ownership of implementing the drug policy. While miners work together and live together, and as such likely form close bonds, their ability to look out for each other is often one driving force behind their mateship.
And part of this role is making sure their workmate isn’t high on the job or doing drugs outside of work that may jeopardise their safety or that of others. This is possibly one of the greatest challenges in any workplace, and mining has the added factor of close working bonds.
Like any small town, a mining town will often have a mean ‘grapevine’ – with everyone well aware of everyone else’s business – so how then are mates allowing mates to go to work high? Dobbing in a mate is a tough, and for many, impossible, action, and a ‘drug-free culture’ or a workplace drug policy is only as good as the inclination of your workers to self-regulate and remove drugs from their own environment.
Outside of the common communication and educational practices, mining organisations face an even greater issue – keeping their employees away from drugs once they punch out for the day, and that means delving into various factors that may lead to drug use. While docking salaries so drugs are less affordable is certainly not a method that would be widely accepted, taking into account the ages and relative financial inexperience of some workers may be a good starting point.
National sporting teams have seen a similar issue with young, well-paid recruits squandering money on unnecessary expenditure and have made moves to deal with it through financial coaching and education, budget setting guidance and establishment of future aspirations such as home ownership. Similar approaches may be useful from a mining perspective.
From the boredom perspective, some organisations have taken a strategic approach, acknowledging that keeping employees busy and giving them entertainment options outside of work may have a more positive effect inside of work.
As a firm fixture in mining towns, mining organisations can do a lot to take a camp and turn it into a community, and in Australia, at the heart of this is introducing sport. Activities like sport, clubs, interest groups, opportunities and guidance for further education can help to build an environment where being bored is not the only option available.
Finally, if isolation, loneliness, depression or trouble sleeping may be a factor in use, key organisations such as beyondblue and Black Dog can provide guidance for developing systems of support, and coaching in practices like relaxation may also be a valuable tool.
Ultimately, establishing a clear network of support for those found to be using drugs is one of the most essential actions in helping to get an employee back on track – and the more employees who are on track, the less there are to influence new employees off track. Having a clear procedure and providing avenues of support (including recommendations for counselling, medical assistance, support groups) for the drug user should be a part of every workplace’s duty of care to their employees.
Communication regarding drugs at work needs to come from the top and trickle down to all areas of the business. Strong leadership can prove an invaluable way of fostering a culture where safety, productivity and a sense of community are priorities, and people know that it’s ok to ask for help when they or a workmate need it. Establishing a culture of open discussion between management and workforce on all safety issues is an important part of developing a healthy, safe and dynamic workforce.
WHERE CAN I FIND MORE INFORMATION ?
Individuals who currently have concerns or problems related to their cannabis use or synthetic cannabis use can access the free National Cannabis Information and Helpline on 1800 30 40 50.
The National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre website (www.ncpic.org.au) contains a range of information and useful resources to help lead the discussion at work, as well more detailed information about cannabis and synthetic cannabis. NCPIC is an Australian Government initiative supported by the Department of Health.
“For some, smoking drugs like synthetic cannabis becomes a crutch they rely on to manage the stresses of the job, the need for sleep or just the excess cash and the time spent alone with nothing else to do.”