Illicit drug use may be a more serious problem in Australia’s outback than it is in the big cities.
The use of illicit drugs in safety-critical industries such as mining and construction has always been a topic of discussion. However, rarely has it been discussed in industries such as farming.
Although no in-depth study has been done, National Farmer's Federation (NFF) workforce productivity committee chairman Charlie Armstrong said there was plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the use of methamphetamine or ‘ice’ was an issue in agriculture.
To address the rising concerns about drugs and alcohol in the shearing and agricultural industries, six farming industry bodies came together to discuss the issue and possible solutions.
Illicit drug use in rural areas is high in risk
We sometimes forget that farms are also safety-critical environments, especially when it involves heavy machinery, vehicles and powerful chemicals. When drugs are used in a farm that has employees, it becomes a risk not only to workplace safety, but to the employee and the farm property as well.
The issue of illicit drug use in rural areas is more complex due to the limited access to healthcare and the stigma surrounding drug use. Drug users in isolated regional or remote farm settings are more at risk as emergency services may not be quick enough to act on complications. Additionally,
“One of the problems we have in rural health in general is access to services is poor, so regional and remote based people tend to leave medical problems until the last minute,” Butt said.
“Country people tend not to seek medical attention until it becomes a serious problem, a lack of services combined with the stereotypical stoic country attitude make seeking help for problems regarding something as socially unacceptable as drug use and addiction extra challenging”, he said.
Illicit drugs are easy to obtain
Farming Ahead spoke to three farm contract workers – a shearer, a machine operator, and a farmhand – on the reasons behind their drug use. The shearer used methamphetamines and the machine operator used ice, while the farmhand that they interviewed was addicted to over-the-counter codeine tablets.
The farm workers mentioned that drugs were easy to obtain and that using them became part of their daily routine. Additionally, the workers felt that the drugs made them feel normal, more relaxed, and helped them think clearer. The workers felt that the drugs did not affect their work performance or safety.
This is worrisome, especially as the effects of drugs such as methamphetamine and marijuana can be very dangerous on the farm.
Methamphetamine increases the user’s dopamine levels, making them feel happy and energetic. Users report feeling able to think clearly, make good decisions and plan effectively. However, when the drug wears off around eight to 12 hours later, these feelings are reversed – the user feels exhausted, can’t think clearly, make good decisions, or control their emotions.
Similarly, many consider marijuana to be harmless and natural, but studies have concluded that marijuana affects the brain negatively, causing altered thinking and memories, paranoia, confusion, reduced coordination and balance.
Illicit drug use could implicate the property owner
Illicit drug use in a farm business environment is also more complex as it involves the farm owner’s property. In a regular business setting, such as in mining or construction, the implications of an employee using drugs is limited to the employee alone. On the farm, however, drug use may implicate the property and the property owner, even if it wasn’t the owner using drugs.
Authorities will not only seize any drugs found on farm property, but will also keep the property on hold and place the owner under investigation. This is the case until the time when the drug owner or user comes forward or is identified. To keep their business and property free of such implications, it is crucial that owners educate their employees, set strict guidelines and implement a workplace drug policy.
Start by being vigilant about possible illicit drug use among workers. Look out for physical signs of drug use – someone under the influence of marijuana will typically have bloodshot eyes, be in a relaxed state and may spontaneously laugh. For users of methamphetamine, physical effects can include dilated pupils, an increased heart and breathing rate, and a reduced appetite.
Additionally, employers need to pay attention to the abuse of pharmaceuticals. The latest report on drug use in Australia found that 1 in 20 Australians were misusing pharmaceuticals, making it the second most recently used drug after cannabis. This is a higher rate than the use of either cocaine or ecstasy.
Farm owners can start by having a conversation with workers on the use of drugs on their property. Guidelines should be set to ban the illicit drug use on the property at all times for safety and legal purposes.
If required, employers can consider implementing an alcohol and drug testing policy on farm employees. In addition, workers should be given the opportunity to seek professional help if needed.
People who are using drugs can talk to their local GP for information on getting assistance. Anyone seeking urgent assistance should contact:
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Beyondblue 1300 22 4636