Experts on addiction aver that the deadly cocktail of a sudden influx of money, the intense competition in the high-tech field and the subsequent harsh deadlines, and the burgeoning black market has created an endemic problem in the tech-startup field.
Steve Albrecht, a teacher of substance abuse awareness for Bay Area employers, asserted, “There’s this workaholism in the valley, where the ability to work on crash projects at tremendous rates of speed is almost a badge of honor. These workers stay up for days and days, and many of them gradually get into meth and coke to keep going. Red Bull and coffee only gets them so far.” He added that many tech companies eschew drug testing because “they want the results, but they don’t want to know how their employees got the results.”
Drug abuse in the tech industry is growing against the backdrop of a national surge in heroin and prescription pain-pill abuse. Treatment specialists say overprescribing painkillers, such as the opioid hydrocodone, has spawned a new crop of addicts: working professionals with college degrees, a description that fits many of the thousands of workers in corporate Silicon Valley.
Dr. Norman Wall, a detox specialist who works with employees from companies such as Apple, says the progression up the addiction ladder is predictable: uppers such as Adderall to keep up with production demands and 12-hour days, followed by downers such as oxycodone, another powerful opioid, to take the edge off when you get home. “It’s not a big leap to get hooked on oxycodone,” he says.
But when the pills are no longer enough, people turn to heroin — first to smoke or snort, and then to inject, because they build a tolerance and need an ever-greater dose to get the same high.
Heroin is also an opioid, so the mind and body respond in much the same way they do to painkillers, but it’s much cheaper: about $20 for a half a gram, whereas some painkillers run $60 or more a pop, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In the past five or six years, heroin has become more available throughout the Bay Area.
Heroin use more than doubled nationally from 2002 to 2012, according to a study of people 12 and older by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the second-most common drug abused, after alcohol, as reported by patients at treatment facilities in San Francisco. The DEA has reported an increase in heroin seizures in Santa Clara and surrounding counties from 6.3 pounds in 2012 to 22 pounds for the first half of this year.
Drug problems are not confined to employees. Founders who once had a neat project with a few buddies find themselves with hundreds of employees to manage, IPOs to prepare for, media to answer to and investors to woo — and sometimes turn to drugs to cope.
“If your life is spinning out of control and is highly charged with stress, you may believe you can take control by self-medicating, but that’s a delusion,” says Byron Kerr, who sits on the board of LifeRing, a sobriety program that recently began organizing meetings in Santa Clara County.
Experts say that while some tech companies make efforts to help employees with substance-abuse problems, it’s not nearly enough. Most of the large tech firms offer counseling, but employees often avoid these confidential services for fear they could lose their jobs if word got out about their drug habits, according to counselors and recovering addicts.
Among a dozen large tech firms asked about substance abuse among workers, only Cisco and Google responded. Both offer counseling through employee-assistance programs, and a Google spokeswoman said employees “can discuss a wide range of issues with the on-site licensed clinical counselors.”
The current surge of illicit drug use is not the Bay Area’s first — the 1960s were legendary. But it was in the dot-com era when the unique marriage of illicit drugs and tech-work really started to click, with fast money fueling the frenzy. As performance expectations rise, deadlines tighten, and 80-hour work weeks become the norm, stress and drug addiction rates in the Valley explode. Instead of resting after working hard, recovery is substituted with playing hard, “blowing off steam,” and partying all night. This culture carries through to the internships, hackathons, crunch periods, and even the day-to-day work culture of tech startups and the gaming industry. And yet we mythologize this self-abuse as superhuman.
[h/t: The Seattle Times]