Long Hours and Boredom Drive Drug Use Among West Texas Oil Field Workers

The return of boom times to the Permian Basin may be fueling an upsurge in illicit drug use among West Texas oil field workers.

In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, some of these workers admitted to using cocaine, methamphetamines, and other illegal substances to combat the long-hours and boredom that are the hallmarks of oil field careers.

In many cases, their drug use went undetected, thanks to managers who would tip off crews ahead of random drug testing.

“We Always Had Cocaine”

“We always had cocaine,” Eddy Lozoya, just 23-years-old and a recovering addict, told the Chronicle.

Lozoya spent three years working as a long-haul trucker in the West Texas oil fields. The job meant a six-figure salary and trips between drilling sites that could last between 36 and 48 hours. Those extreme hours – and a boss who berated drivers into staying on the road for as long as they could – drove his drug use.

Most illicit drugs, including cocaine, marijuana, and opioids, sell for two-to-three times their normal price in the West Texas patch, thanks to its remote location and the lucrative jobs found in the oil field.

“There’s a lot of profit to be made out here because it’s in such high demand,” Lozoya said. “People want it here, and they’ll pay for it.”

Meth Seizures on the Rise in Permian Basin

The Houston Chronicle’s investigation indicated that methamphetamine (aka crystal meth) has become the drug of choice among oil field workers in West Texas. The area’s rig count increased five-fold between 2009 and 2014, and correlated with a 4,000% increase in meth seizures in the Texas counties that encompass the Permian Basin.

“When the oil price is up, there’s more methamphetamine in our entire community,” said Steve Thomason, executive director at the Springboard Center rehabilitation facility in Midland.

The drug boom is also affecting the ability of energy firms to find oil field workers. According to Houston-based contractor Patterson-UTI Energy, more prospective employees have failed drug tests this year compared to 2014. Corpus Christie-based Dynamic Oilfield Services said half of its West Texas job applicants have failed drug tests, forcing it to hire from outside the region.

“A Million Ways to Beat the System”

Oil field companies and contractors told the Houston Chronical that they’ve stepped up random testing of employees in recent years to encourage a drug-free culture. But according to experts, these testing protocols aren’t going to solve the problem.

“There’s a million and one ways to beat the drug tests,” said Patrice Owens, director of the Greenhouse Outpatient Center, an Arlington addiction treatment facility. “If people want to use drugs, there’s always a way.”

Managers in the fields are often willing to look the other way when it comes to drug use, and some will even give workers a heads-up several days before random testing is about to take place.

Even if a worker is fired after failing a drug test, new jobs in the oil field aren’t hard to find.

“During the boom times, I could leave my job and there’d be plenty of places to work,” said Cody Watson, now a 41-year-old recovering addict.

According to Watson, he once drove 18 hours across the state of Texas for a job interview, drinking water to eliminate any traces of drugs from his system. He easily passed the pre-employment drug test.

“A lot of these guys hop from one rig to another,” Watson said. “It’s a never-ending cycle.”

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