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Going on Ecstasy Alert

Ecstasy -- the so-called club drug that has gained in popularity among Gen-Yers during the past few years -- is now getting employers' attention. In July, security services company Guardsmark started testing its 16,000 workers for the synthetic drug, a cross between methamphetamine and LSD. And the two leading providers of employee drug tests, Quest Diagnostics and Laboratory Corp. of America (LabCorp), say they're fielding more inquiries than ever from companies interested in screening for the stimulant. "We're overwhelmed with calls," says Tom Moore, executive director of key accounts at LabCorp. "Some Fortune 500 companies have insisted that we add ecstasy to their drug testing."

Employers may have reason to be concerned. While ecstasy isn't as widespread as marijuana, its use soared 500% from 1993 to 1998, according to the latest figures from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The heaviest users are adults aged 18 to 25, and a study by the University of Michigan last year found that 8.2% of high school seniors had taken ecstasy within the prior 12 months, up from 5.6% in 1999. (By comparison, 37% said they had smoked pot.) More teens now use ecstasy than cocaine, conclude the Michigan researchers.

The emergence of ecstasy isn't the only drug problem facing organizations. Data from Quest Diagnostics indicate that workplace drug use rose in 2000, reversing a decade-long decline. Of more than 6 million employee drug tests Quest administered last year, 4.7% came back positive, an uptick from 4.6% in 1999. That's still a significant drop from 1988, when 13.6% were positive.

"REASONABLE SUSPICION." Random but more frequent on-the-job testing may be one reason for the higher percentage of positive results last year, says Barry Sample, science and technology director for Quest's corporate health and wellness division. While the overall number of tests Quest handled rose 5% from 1999 to 2000, random tests and those done on the basis of "reasonable suspicion" leaped 20% during the same period. Nearly 8% of random tests and 25% of reasonable-suspicion tests came back positive, both increases from 1999.

Despite the apparent rise in drug use, some employers have opted to end testing altogether. Roughly 66% of 2,100 U.S. companies polled by the American Management Assn. last year said they tested for drugs, down from 74% in 1997. Agilent Technologies discontinued drug screening of job candidates a couple of years ago because of the tight labor market. Requiring potential employees to submit a urine sample -- and then wait for the results -- bogged down the hiring process at a time when candidates were often being wooed by multiple suitors, a spokeswoman says. Despite today's cooler market, Agilent doesn't plan on reinstating drug testing for now.

Other companies simply are looking for ways to slash costs, says Eugene Ferraro, president of Business Controls, a Golden (Colo.) company that develops drug programs for large organizations and conducts investigations of employees suspected of substance abuse. Drug screenings can run $15 to $50 per worker, he adds, an expense that some corporate bean counters no longer deem worthwhile.

"[Employers] say it's not providing the return on investment that they expected," Ferraro notes. "There are just not enough positive results." Perhaps. But if designer drugs like ecstasy continue to appeal to a new generation of workers, more employers will likely call in the testers. By Jennifer Gill in New York

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