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Hawaii No. 1 in nation in workplace meth use

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Despite a 26.1 percent decline in methamphetamine from 2006, Hawaii still leads the nation in use of the drug among its work force, according to a new study by a major drug-testing company.

In millions of test samples analyzed in 2010, Hawaii had a dramatic lead — 410 percent greater than the national average — in tests coming up positive for the highly addictive drug stimulant, according to a Quest Diagnostics study obtained by the Associated Press.

Quest was to release today the first state-by-state analysis of urine specimens collected from workplaces across the country.

Arkansas followed Hawaii at 280 percent higher than the national average and Oklahoma had the third highest rate at 240 percent.

A regional analysis of five years of data from the Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index shows a new trend emerging in meth use.

"Just looking at the national averages doesn’t tell the whole story," said Dr. Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions. "The western half of the country has consistently faced dramatically higher methamphetamine prevalence than the nation as a whole. Our data reflect a pervasive national challenge, and suggest that the substance may be spreading eastward into the Midwest and South."

While meth seems to be making an eastward migration and there have been recent reports of meth lab busts in New York and Georgia, the East Coast remains insulated from dramatically high prevalence rates, Sample said. New York was 100 percent below the national average in 2010, along with Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts.

More recent numbers from Honolulu-based Diagnostic Laboratory Services show crystal methamphetamine use dropped to its lowest level since 2004 in the second quarter of this year.

Crystal meth use fell to 0.4 percent from 1.1 percent among the workers and job candidates it tests. Use of synthetic urine in an attempt to mask drug use was essentially the same as last quarter.

"Hawaii was lagging the rest of the country in some of those changes we saw," Sample said of an overall drop of 44 percent during 2006 to 2010 in positive meth tests nationwide.

Hawaii’s service economy and high cost of living puts workers at greater risk for meth use, said Dr. William Haning, a psychiatry professor at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. Employees from hotel workers to carpenters to restaurant staff have been known to become so-called "functional" users taking the drug in an effort to work longer, harder and multiple jobs.

"If you’re doing mind-numbing, repetitive work, this enables you to overcome both the painful tedium of the boredom as well as increase concentration and safety," he said, noting the severe pitfalls including depression, hallucination and cardiac risk.

But the idea of using a stimulant to be a better worker isn’t only a function of today’s economy. Laborers working in hypoxic conditions in the Andes Mountains of Peru have long chewed on cocoa leaves, Haning said. The practice of using meth to work harder also emerged among garment and field workers in California.

Others, from students to executives, are also turning to meth for a competitive edge.

"The attorney who is taking on too many clients, the prosecutor who is working long hours. It’s not just the service folks," he said. "Any of these medication-assisted efforts to get through the work day is an unfortunate pact with the devil."

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