By Alfa · Jun 23, 2005 ·
  1. Alfa

    Fort McMurray Today -- Employees are finding new and more inventive ways to work their way around workplace drug tests. The market is flooded with products to help a drug user mask or alter the detectable toxins left behind in their system. Without these substances, they could lose their jobs.

    Everything from pills and powders that detoxify the body to synthetic urine used as a substitute for the drug user's actual urine is available in local hemp shops.

    Kelly Hermansen, who owns Herbal Essentials hemp store on Franklin Avenue, said drug test masking is a big business for his store. "We sell about 40 to 50 units of (synthetic urine) each week."

    The two products he carries, Quick Fix and Number 1 Urine Substitution, are completely legal and range from $46 to $85 for a box. The more expensive brand comes in a pouch with a belt to strap around the stomach, and a tube to simulate urination.

    Hermansen also mentioned what he sees as a larger problem raised by drug testing.

    "They're losing these guys who want to come home at night and just smoke a joint, while they're hiring people doing harder drugs ... because they pass the tests," Hermansen said. He's referring to the 30 days during which marijuana can be detected in a user's system compared to the 12 to 72 hours that harder drugs like cocaine and crystal methamphetamine remain detectable.

    "I think people definitely need a wake-up call," he said.

    While Hermansen hears stories from his clients of "epidemic" hard drug use in Fort McMurray and in oilsands work camps, the RCMP doesn't see the same signs.

    "I would have to disagree. Our evidence does not support that," said Cpl.

    Ann Brinnen of the RCMP.

    "It's not considered the most widely-used drug in Fort McMurray. That would be marijuana," she said.

    "I can tell you any use of crystal meth, any use of crack cocaine -- any use of any illegal substance is an issue, but (crystal meth) is not a major issue. (But) any drug use in Fort McMurray is a serious problem."

    The largest employers who undertake worker drug testing are oilsands developers Syncrude Canada, Suncor Energy and Albian Sands Energy. All three companies said they employ strict drug and alcohol policies, put in place to ensure the safety of everyone on their job sites.

    It includes pre-employment, pre-access and post-incident drug testing for employees. None of the companies employ random drug testing.

    "We get a lot of feedback from our employees and contractors alike that say that they do not want to be working alongside people who may be impaired by either drugs or alcohol," said Steve Reynish, chief operating officer for Albian.

    Reynish could only recall one instance at Albian where the lab returned an "odd result" from a drug test, showing that an employee had tried to fudge the results with a masking agent.

    "We test for what we can test for. We use the available technology. Like any of these things, however sophisticated we are, there's lots of other people looking at sophisticated ways around it. We will just try to keep up with that the best we can."

    Safety was stressed above all else by all three oilsands companies.

    "The safety and well-being of all our employees and contractors is our No.

    1 priority here at Syncrude," said company spokesman Alain Moore. "Our alcohol and drug policy is one of the tools we used to achieve that goal."

    Moore believes there is a certain stereotype applied to people who work in the oilsands that labels them prone to drug abuse and alcoholism.

    "It's quite unfortunate you hear this stereotype a lot and I don't think it's a very fair or accurate stereotype to place against people who work in this industry."

    Suncor spokesman Brad Bellows also emphasized that "safety is paramount"

    for Suncor, and "we have no tolerance for any kind of substance abuse that could impact our work sites.

    "I'm not aware that (hard drug use) is a bigger problem in the oilsands than anywhere else in the province or the country."

    Hermansen doesn't support the use of hard drugs, and is uneasy about the increasingly darker nature of the business at his hemp store.

    "When I opened the store it was for that reason -- a hemp store. I probably never would have opened the store if I knew it was going to be like this.

    "Now a lot of guys come in looking for the other stuff. That's how I know there's a big increase in the harder drugs."

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