Popular Employee Becomes Withdrawn? Is it Cocaine?

synthetic drug testingEcstasy can make people become more affectionate. Speed can make people feel more energetic. GHB has euphoric qualities. Depressants can produce feelings of contentment.1 These are all valid effects of illicit drugs, and if that is all that was revealed, it would lead to a person believing they are beneficial. Who does not want to feel affectionate, energetic, euphoric, or content?

However, these descriptions are the typically self-servings drug effects that substance abusers pick and choose to describe why they feel the need to use a particular illicit substance. What about the person who was once friendly and took part in all the social activities and bit by bit becomes withdrawn, if not anti-social? Studies of cocaine users indicate the same drug that produces an overall relaxing effect also leads to loss of feelings of empathy for other people and thus social skills decline.

Drugs on the Mind?

It is common to hear people say, “What is wrong with (insert name)? He used to be so friendly.” It may be the employee has a lot on his mind or is experiencing mild depression. Both of these situations often lead to withdrawal from social interaction. However, the person may be acting differently due to the effects of drug use.

The first point employers should keep in mind is the importance of maintaining objectivity. That is one of the advantages of implementing a random onsite AOD testing program. The results of the testing will produce objective results, giving the employer the information needed to take the next appropriate steps. In some cases, drug testing will confirm the employee is using drugs.

A recent study conducted at the Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Zurich found that cocaine users experience deteriorating social skills. The cognitive functioning involved in social reward is blunted, leading to cocaine addicts feeling less empathy. Specifically, brain imaging found that the medial orbitofrontal cortex activation was muted when a cocaine addict had contact with another person and both people then concentrated on a mutual object (like a conversation). This indicated the drug users found the contact experience less rewarding compared to someone who is not using cocaine. Also, it was discovered that the same blunted cognitive response occurred when there had been fewer social contacts made over the prior few weeks.

No Satisfaction

The researchers believe that regular cocaine users do not see social interaction as rewarding compared as those who do not use drugs. The drug user becomes less social and has difficulty developing empathy for others. The reduced reward cognitive experience may also contribute to the cocaine user’s seeming inability to stop using the drug after losing all important social relationships, like with family and friends or coworkers. As important social connections are lost, the drug user is more likely to stay addicted.

So is (insert name) a drug addict if he or she stops joining coworkers for lunch or will not attend non-mandatory group functions or ceases joking around? Maybe. Maybe not.

Employers are not psychologists, but they do need to understand that symptoms of drug addiction are varied. The only sure way to determine if someone is using drugs is through drug and alcohol screenings. Mediscreen is a NATA accredited national provider of onsite drug and alcohol testing support services and works with a variety of clients interested in implementing and maintaining a quality workplace testing program.


  1. National Drugs Campaign, “Drugs – The Real Facts,” Australian Government – Department of Health, (n.d.)
  2. Katrin H. Preller, et. al., “Functional changes of the reward system underlie blunted response to social gaze in cocaine users,” PNAS, (January 2014) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1317090111.
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