Drug-taking soars as meth helps oil workers cash in on boom
When Joe Forsythe returned to the West Texas oilfields last year after a stint in a drug rehab facility, he thought he had beaten his addiction to methamphetamine.
The 32-year-old rig worker and equipment handler lasted about a year before relapsing.
"It's easy to get back into that mentality," said Forsythe, of Midland, Texas, who said he no longer uses drugs after stints in rehab since 2015. "I'd work 24 hours ... I was just plagued with fatigue and needed something to improve my work ethic."
While drug use is a problem among industrial workers across the US, there are particular concerns in the oil sector, already one of the most dangerous sectors - with a fatality rate about three times other industries.
Drug use is a significant factor in workplace injuries and crimes involving oilfield workers, according to drug counsellors, hospital and police officials and court records in West Texas, the epicenter of US shale.
As the shale revolution has spawned waves of hiring since 2010, law enforcement authorities have tracked a boom in drug trafficking and related crime. In Midland and Ector counties, home to many Permian Basin oil workers, state and local police in 2016 seized more than 95 lbs of methamphetamine - up from less than four lbs in 2010.
Meth and cocaine are stimulants of choice in the oil patch to get through long oilfield shifts, but alcohol and pain killers such as opioids are also widely abused - often to soften the crash after taking stimulants, drug addicts and counsellors said.
Drug charges in the industry town of Midland more than doubled between 2012 and 2016, to 942 from 491, according to police data. In neighbouring Odessa, total drug arrests doubled between 2010 and 2016, to 1291 from 756. The increase in drug crime stretched through two boom periods in the West Texas oil patch, before and after a crude price crash that hit in 2014.
Oil companies typically drug test job applicants and often conduct additional random tests on employees.
Several oil firms with major operations in the Permian Basin declined to discuss how they handle drugs in the oil patch or did not respond to inquiries.
Despite efforts to curb drug abuse, many oilfield workers regularly use stimulants on long shifts of gruelling work for relatively high pay, said drug counsellors, law enforcement officials and oil field workers recovering from addictions.
More than a third of clients at Midland's Springboard drug rehabilitation centre are involved in the oil and gas industry, said executive director Steve Thomason.
Rising oil prices have brought more admissions for methamphetamine abuse, Thomason said. "People say they can work on it for 24 hours straight," he said.
Corporal Steve LeSueur, a spokesman for the Odessa police, said the influx of drugs in the oil patch is stretching police resources.
"The jail has been full," he said. "A lot of crimes are drug-related - simple property crimes, forgeries to feed their drug habits."
When jobs are plentiful, companies desperate for labour sometimes will disregard signs of substance abuse, said three recovering drug addicts who worked in the oilfield. "These oilfield bosses - they party, too," Forsythe said. "As long as you're getting the job done and not making a scene, they won't drug test you."
One recovering addict, who declined to use his name because he still works in the industry, said he was often high during long-haul trips driving trucks transporting oil.
"I could do a little coke and speed and it would give me the extra stretch," he said. "It ended up running me to the ground." (Reuters)