Originally created 11/17/06

Program stresses benefit of drug-free workplaces



Ashley Smith is no angel.

But Ms. Smith, the Atlanta hostage hero and a recovering drug addict, is using her life experiences to tell people just how big an impact drug use has on society and in the workplace.

The Augusta resident said she stole from her numerous employers, was rude to customers and was frequently late - all because she was high on drugs.

"I guarantee you, it affects your company," she said.

Ms. Smith spoke at the 2006 Conference on Substance Abuse in the Workplace held by the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. It was the first conference as part of the chamber's Drugs Don't Work Program, which was created by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

About 150 people - dressed in everything from suits to jeans - attended the event at Ramada Hotel and Conference Center. The audience was a mix of program participants and those who were there to learn more.

Ms. Smith lost her husband in a stabbing in 2001 and eventually handed her daughter over to her family after realizing she couldn't raise her while addicted to methamphetamine.

She said her life changed after being taken hostage in March 2005 by Brian Nichols, the man charged in the Atlanta courthouse slayings. She eventually talked him into letting her leave.

While many people don't realize the pervasiveness of drug use, Chuck Wade, the state director or Drugs Don't Work, said illegal drug use is the most serious issue facing the country today.

"Drugs are a contagious, terminal plague on America," said Mr. Wade, who is also the president and CEO of The Council on Alcohol and Drugs.

According to the Council's Web site, 77 percent of illicit drug users are employed, mainly at small businesses, which employ 80 percent of the domestic work force.

Drug-addicted employees cost companies more in workers' compensation insurance, health care premiums and theft than employees who are drug-free, Richmond County District Attorney Danny Craig said.

He said there are 5,703 on-the-job fatalities in the U.S. a year, with 19 percent caused by employees using drugs while at work.

Mr. Wade, a retired narcotics officer, said drugs fuel terrorism and could cause the country to destroy itself, much like the Roman Empire.

Ms. Smith encouraged those in the audience to implement programs such as Drugs Don't Work, saying that although many employees aren't users, those who are work hard to hide it.

There are ways to get around company drug tests - which is one element of the Drugs Don't Work program - but Ms. Smith said tests frequently served as a deterrent because, as an addict, she didn't apply to businesses that required them.

Companies that participate in Drugs Don't Work, designed to help small businesses create drug-free offices, receive a 7.5 percent discount on their workers' compensation premiums and discounts on drug testing.

Reach Laura Youngs at (706) 823-3227 or laura.youngs@augustachronicle.com.

DRUGS IN THE WORKPLACE

- 6.5 percent of full-time and 8.6 percent of part-time workers are current illicit drug users.

- 6.2 percent of adults working full time are heavy drinkers.

- 38 percent workers between the ages of 18 and 25 are binge drinkers.

- Among employed adults, the highest rates of heavy drinking and current illicit drug use are reported by white, non-Hispanic males between the ages of 18 and 25 and have less than a high school education.

- By occupation, the highest rates of current illicit drug use and heavy drinking are food preparation workers, waiters, waitresses and bartenders (19 percent); construction workers (14 percent); service occupations (13 percent); and transportation and material moving workers (10 percent).

- More than 60 percent of adults know someone who has reported for work under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor