Substance Abuse Spikes During COVID-19

July 27, 2020 | Shannon Shoemaker

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has dominated conversations across the globe, on television, social media, and in our own homes over the last few months. As more cases have come to light across the U.S., the pandemic has affected every American in some form, causing widespread panic and uncertainty. It is human nature to feel venerable during times like this, to be afraid of the unknown, to feel stressed and anxious for oneself or your loved ones. Often the most common remedy to ‘mask’ these stresses is to self-medicate with the use of illicit substances.



Alcohol use disorders are characterized by heavy alcohol use and loss of control over alcohol intake. Although they are among the most prevalent mental disorders globally, they are also among the most stigmatized. People with an alcohol use disorder are at higher risk of COVID-19 not only because of the impact of alcohol on their health but also because they are more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration than other members of the population. It is therefore essential, under the current conditions, that people who need help because of their alcohol use get all the support they need[1].

Excessive alcohol use increases the risk of workplace violence, injuries, and motor vehicle crashes. It can also increase the risk of long-term health issues such as liver disease, cancer, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and congenital disabilities[2].

Drinking alcohol:

    • Weakens your body’s ability to fight infections, increasing the risk of complications, and making it harder to get better if you are sick.
    • Can increase the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia, which are sometimes associated with COVID-19.
    • May increase anxiety, depression, or other mental health.
    • Increases the risk of family problems and violence.
    • May alter your thoughts, judgment, and decision-making.
    • Worsens sleep quality, which makes it more challenging to deal with stress.


The Associated Press recently reported that sales of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. rose 55%[3] in the week ending March 21. Spirits such as tequila, gin, and pre-mixed cocktails led the way, with sales jumping 75% compared to the same period last year. Wine sales were up 66% while beer sales rose 42%, and online sales far outpaced in-store purchases by 243%!


Drug Abuse

Stress during a pandemic can contribute to increased use of prescription medications, non-prescription medications, illegal drugs, or a return to using after remission[4]. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic may result in disruptions to treatment and harm reduction service providers used by persons with substance use or substance use disorder. In-person treatment options for substance use or substance use disorders might not be available or are limited during these times, leading to a risk of untreated substance use issues, and may also result in a return to substance use for people not currently using or who are in remission.

Marijuana continues to lead the way as one of the most common drugs of abuse (second to alcohol). A recent report in March from Jane Technologies, a leading cannabis e-commerce platform, shows that the average marijuana retail store saw revenues increase 52% to 130% compared to sales volumes in January 2020[5].  Marijuana beverages and edibles saw significant sales increases in California, according to the cannabis analytics firm Headset and that “Cannabis demand has surged in Florida,” writes MKM Partners Research, which says operators saw an average jump in THC product of 36% for the week ending March 19[6].


Employer Action

Amid logistical challenges with the potential decrease of availability or limited hours of collection sites, the fear for donors visiting a medical facility to conduct tests, etc. – employers must clearly understand that now is not the time to stop or delay drug testing. These obstacles can be easily overcome. With data showing substance use at all-time highs, past studies showing an overall increasing trend in substance abuse[7], and with more employees working from the comforts of their home – drug use is occurring. It can lead to devastating impacts on business operations, morale, company reputation, and legal liability if left uncontrolled.

With very few exceptions, the federal government continues to require drug testing of all safety-sensitive employees[8]. State drug testing laws that mandate substance abuse testing or regulate the who, what, when, where, and how drug testing should be conducted, have not been suspended. Industries with strict testing requirements or employers following voluntary drug-free workplace programs must continue to conduct drug testing.

Substance abuse will likely continue to increase in the coming months. Employers should remain committed to their substance abuse screening goals and be prepared to provide assistance to employees that are dealing with a substance abuse issue.











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