Men, Women and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse has seemingly turned employers into experts on drug abuse in many ways. They must be familiar with commonly used streetRecalibration drugs, recognize the symptoms of drug use, learn how people frequently hide evidence of drug use, and become masters at dealing with sensitive issues like positive drug tests and privacy rights. However, there is one more bit of information to add to the list – gender differences in substance abuse.

The oft-quoted statistics from the 2007 national Drug Strategy Household Survey give the first clues to gender differences. Forty-one percent (41%) of males and thirty-four percent (34%) of females over the age of 14 had used illicit drugs in their lifetime at least once. When asked about use of illicit drugs in the previous twelve months, 15.8% of males and 11.0% of females admitted to recent use. Statistically speaking, males are more likely during their lifetime to use an illicit drug than females. In fact, 3 out of every 5 Australian men have used an illicit drug, which means there is a 60% chance that even a small business with 5 employees has a worker who would test positive for drugs like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, hallucinogens, or cannabis.1 However, the numbers also include the use of legal prescription drugs used for illicit purposes.

The Bigger Picture

Though these statistics are important to know as part of the ‘big picture’, the Institute of Criminology (IOC) also offers a glimpse into gender differences in drug use patterns. After conducting a study on offenders, some interesting information emerged. For example, IOC found that there are gender differences in the type of drugs used. More women (43%) used amphetamines and methylamphetamine than men (34%). More men (59%) used cannabis. More women (18%) used heroin than men (13%), but more men (9%) used ecstasy.2

The message is clear for employers: the ideal drug tests are those that detect multiple drugs, like the saliva device DrugWipe® 5+. This particular product detects opiates, cannabis, amphetamines, methamphetamines, and cocaine. Another example of a multi-panel test is the Oraline saliva device that detects opiates, methamphetamines, cocaine, and marijuana.

Also of interest to employers in the IOC study is the statistic indicating that criminal offenders charged with property crimes or a drug crime were much more likely to be drug addicted. This was true for men and women. Drug addiction often leads to property crimes, including in the workplace, because of the need for money for drugs. Yet, the IOC concluded that there are, “…differential patterns of male and female drug use…” Women offenders use harder illegal drugs than men and are more likely to commit property crimes just to support their drug habit. Another way to state this is that women are committing many of these crimes because they are on drugs. One theory proposed is that women turn to harder drugs like amphetamines, cocaine and heroin because they are looking from a way to manage psychological distress.3

Unbiased Drug Testing

There are several reasons why it is important for employers to understand the gender differences in substance abuse. First, the statistics eliminate personal perceptions. People tend to think of the worst drug offenders as men. Second, women are more likely to commit property thefts to support drug use. Third, it is clear that random drug testing is ideal because it overcomes any potential employer bias in the drug and alcohol testing program. This gives an employer a stronger legal footing for taking employee disciplinary action or managing legal challenges to the testing program.

CMM technology ( has a number of multi-panel drug testing devices that are able to produce highly reliable results. The quality devices ensure that administered test results are unbiased when used in a well-designed random drug and alcohol testing program in the workplace.


1 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: detailed findings. (2007). Retrieved May 10, 2011, from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:

2 Forsythe, Lubica and Kerryn Adams. (2009, November). Mental health, abuse, drug use and crime: does gender matter. Retrieved from Australian Government Institute of Criminology:

3 Byrne MK & Howells K 2002. The psychological needs of women prisoners: implications for rehabilitation and management. Psychiatry, psychology and law. 9(1): 34–43.

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