Many areas worldwide have recently legalized, or have future plans to legalize marijuana (cannabis) for recreational use. How will that affect divers, offshore workers, and transportation workers who now must submit to workplace drug tests? Once it has been legalized, does that mean that it will be OK to smoke pot when you are on your rotation home from offshore?
Most workplace drug and alcohol testing is client driven. The major oil producers insist that workers at their facilities not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Drug testing will not likely decrease and there may well be an increase in drug testing as more jurisdictions legalize marijuana. Clients that have asked for random drug tests in the past may very well insist on regular drug testing of all workers on every rotation.
Why Drug Testing?
The reason drug testing is performed in many industries is that statistics show that people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or people who have used drugs in the recent past are many times more likely to cause an accident, injure themselves or others on the crew, or damage infrastructure. Think about it for a moment: would you want to be in the chamber, knowing the operator had just smoked a joint? If you get trapped underwater, do you want your standby diver to be stoned when he comes after you? If you answered yes to either one of those questions you are obviously in the wrong industry.
What Happens If You Test Positive?
The typical response to a positive drug test or a failed alcohol breath test is immediate termination of the employee. If you were driving across the city to work, that would be bad enough. When you are flying for twenty or thirty hours on an airliner to get to work it is far worse. Usually a positive drug test will require the employee to pay for his own flight home and his visa expenses. Unfortunately, I have seen this exact scenario play out in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa. In one case it was a crane operator who drank on a crew boat; the rest were divers who tested positive for recreational drugs. The divers were all flagged by the diving company involved “not for re-hire”, which narrows the field of potential employers, and all had to pay for their flights to their home countries. In the case of the crane operator, that occurred in Turkmenistan and I was told he was arrested when he got back to the port he sailed from. Whether the drugs are legal to use in your home country or not has absolutely no bearing on how the client or contractor will deal with a positive test result. You would do well to remember that.
How Long After Smoking Pot Will I Test Clean?
Because there are so many variables involved, this question is almost impossible to answer. In testing for marijuana, the age of the subject, his level of activity, his body mass, his metabolism, and his diet all have an effect on the levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that appear in a drug test. Also, the amount used, the frequency of usage, and the method of use all has an effect on the THC levels and how long they are detectable. Another variable is the type of drug test administered. THC typically will show up in a blood test for 2 to 3 days with a casual user, and 7 to 14 days with a heavy user. In a urine test, THC will show in a casual user for 7 to 10 days and in a heavy user for 25 to 100 days. Hair tests will indicate THC in all users for approximately 90 days.
How Can I Beat The Test?
There have been literally thousands of schemes over the years to beat drug tests. The most memorable one I recall was a diver I worked with in the early 1980s who submitted a urine sample from his sister-in-law. He was informed by the oil company doctor that 1) he was pregnant, and 2) he was suspended without pay for one month. In the early 80s, that was considered a reasonable penalty; today he would be fired. The simple answer is this: there is no foolproof way to beat a drug test. If you are reading this paragraph looking for a way to get around a drug test, you should be asking yourself why? If you are trying to beat a drug test, or are worried about failing a drug test, you should not be going offshore – period.
OVER-THE-COUNTER AND PRESRIPTION MEDICATIONS
Your family doctor knows that you are a commercial diver, so any drugs prescribed by him will be safe to use while you are working underwater, right? Unfortunately that is not necessarily true. Doctors are trained to diagnose and treat injuries, ailments and maladies in people who dwell on the earth’s surface, not below the water’s surface. The General Practitioner, Specialist Physician or Surgeon can not be expected to understand the hyperbaric environment or its effect on the human body or medications because he has not been trained to understand it. That is precisely why we have Hyperbaric Physicians.
Medicinal side effects by definition are effects other than the intended effects, often causing some harm or discomfort, but judged “acceptable” when weighed against the medical advantage that the particular drug provides. Most over-the-counter and prescription drugs have at least some side effects. These side effects may be mild or almost non-existent at atmospheric pressure, but in a hyperbaric environment they can be harmful or even deadly. We all know about the “rebound effect” and how dangerous it is to use medications to help with equalizing. But how many of us are aware that many drugs have an effect on the heart rate? Gas transfer is accomplished by the heart moving blood between tissues and lungs. Speeding up or slowing down the heart is most definitely going to affect the gas load taken on as well as off-gassing. It is not only gas transfer that needs to be considered; many over-the-counter cold medications have a direct effect on the body’s ability to thermo-regulate. This is a very serious issue both in cold water and in very warm water.
Are Any Medications Safe?
Obviously the drugs listed in the US Navy Diving Manual’s list and the DMAC list are safe when used for the conditions listed. We know because they have been tested. But many divers are treated for various reasons with medications not on the US Navy or DMAC list. In order to be safe to use, a drug cannot alter cognitive ability, primary physical senses, the heart rate, respiration depth, respiration rate, oxygen or inert gas transfer, or the body’s ability to thermo-regulate, even when the body is subject to increased pressure.
How Do I Find Out If A Drug Is Safe?
Ideally, the best way to find out if a particular drug is safe to use while diving is to discuss it with a hyperbaric physician. Any diver who has been prescribed a medication by his family physician and plans to take the medication while working should consult a hyperbaric physician. Better to be safe than sorry. But in the case of an over-the-counter medication – what then? The diver should talk to the pharmacist, explaining that he works in a hyperbaric environment and in the water (remember heat transfer happens much faster in water) and find out if the medication could potentially cause problems. Always read the list of side effects for each medication yourself and if you see something that causes concern – ask about it.
Can Prescriptions Have An Effect On Drug Tests?
The short answer is yes they can. It is always best when you have been prescribed medication to get a letter from the physician to take offshore with you. Then if there is a problem, you at least have a leg to stand on. Some countries now recognize medical marijuana. I have yet to hear of a single oil company that will allow the use of medical marijuana, and I do not ever expect it to be allowed, as it is considered a mind-altering substance. Heavy pain killers typically have codeine or other narcotics and will almost always be picked up in a drug test. A better option would be an acetaminophen or aspirin based pain killer, or better still, time off until the pain has left.
If the country where you live has legalized marijuana, stay away from it if you plan to work offshore. If you are on prescription medications, take a list of those (from your doctor) when you go. Before you take any new medication, prescription or over-the-counter, make sure it will be safe to use while diving. And most importantly – if you are on any medications, be sure to tell your Diving Supervisor about it when you arrive offshore and not after something bad has happened.