While national attention has shifted toward opioid abuse due to the large body count these drugs are creating, a decades-old substance abuse threat continues to flourish in West Texas and many other parts of the country: meth addiction. The problem has grown particularly severe among oil workers in West Texas who earn a comfortable living for the hard work they do, but find themselves bored, isolated and in need of energy and stimulation at practically any cost. DEA officials say that oil field workers are among the largest consumers of methamphetamine and that Mexican cartels are the biggest supplier. The amount of meth seized by the DEA in West Texas and New Mexico counties experiencing these oil boons has tripled in the last four years. Last year, the agency seized 66 pounds of methamphetamine in the Midland area, compared with 11 pounds in 2012.
The Houston Chronicle reports that in the first half of this year, more than 1,000 people working or applying for jobs in the oil-producing business failed urine-based drug tests, a figure that has doubled since last year. These numbers, many of which are attributable to meth addiction, come from Houston-based DISA Global Solutions, the largest provider of drug-testing policies to United States oil producers. The number of industry workers failing hair follicle tests, which are more effective in detecting long-term drug use, jumped to more than 4,600 over the past 18 months, tripling the number in the two years from 2009 to 2010; the number of people testing positive for methamphetamine jumped 500 percent. There is also a direct correlation between the rise in oil prices and the supply of methamphetamine in West Texas.
Many even find ways to beat the tests and keep working brutally long shifts. To these workers, most of whom are drivers operating 30-or-more-ton rigs during their trips to various drilling sites during shifts that can stretch up to 48 consecutive hours, these drugs, and avoiding penalties for taking them, have become a matter of survival. These drivers usually pull down six-figure incomes and see a lack of productivity as a threat to their future and financial security. In addition to meth addiction, West Texas has also seen a spike in drug-related crime. The area has also seen a spike in treatment admissions for cocaine and marijuana.
In an effort to combat the problem, local oil companies are adopting stricter testing protocol, including random screenings and reasonable-suspicion tests. Some even threaten termination after one failure, a practice not widely embraced in the oil industry. Tougher protocol, however, leaves two issues on the table: it fails to account for those who are able to beat these tests and it risks creating a workforce vacuum in an area that sorely needs rebuilding. There are plenty of users that find their way back to work even after testing positive for drugs and being terminated. Oil booms create sky-high demand for workers and it’s easy for an employee to be let go by one company today and hired by another tomorrow.
In an industry and work climate in which productivity and constant man-power is key, oil workers in West Texas have found what they believe to be a way to keep working and earning sky-high salaries while placing unrealistic expectations on their bodies and their brains. Suppliers have readily tapped into this market and have created a culture of meth addiction.