The New Wave: Cocaine Addiction Amongst Tech Workers in Silicon Valley

“If you had told me 20 years ago that I was going struggle with cocaine addiction, I would have laughed,” Charlotte tells me. “My idea of a coke addict was Kelly’s mom on 90210, frantically snorting C in the ladies bathroom before the big fashion show, all shoulder pads and leather skirt. I was a mousy girl from Iowa, not exactly primed to take on a $200/day habit.” But by 2007, Charlotte had come a long way from Iowa. With a degree in engineering from Stanford, she landed a desirable job in Silicon Valley, and the age of 24 she was making more money than her parents combined. In exchange for her impressive salary, the job demanded intense working hours, often well into the night. “I wasn’t introduced to cocaine at a fantastic party or bar bathroom. I snorted my first line at my desk with a co-worker and then we kept working.”

Before long, an ever-growing proportion of Charlotte’s salary was being spent on coke, and she and her co-workers would joke that they should be able to deduct it as a business expense. “It was easy to ignore the dangers because they were hypothetical, while the benefits were immediate and real—my career was flourishing, I was getting results.” That ended one night when Charlotte’s car was pulled over for speeding and the cop noticed a small bag of white powder in her cupholder. “It was absolutely surreal. One minute I’m one of the most promising young engineers in the Valley, the next I’m in a cell realizing I have no one to call because I’ve spent the last four years of my life at work—and wondering if I would be able to get coke in prison. Thinking back on it now it sounds absurd, but those were my two thoughts: I work too much, and how do I get coke?” While Charlotte was able to avoid prison time, she lost her job and didn’t return to the tech industry. “The night of my arrest was the worst moment of my life, but it also probably saved me. It forced me to confront my addiction and brought me to treatment.”

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The Rise of Cocaine Addiction in Silicon Valley

The tech explosion has brought tremendous wealth, opportunity, and vitality to Silicon Valley, home of some of the largest and most prestigious companies in the world. It has also brought a new wave of illicit drug use to the Bay Area, as young, educated, high-achieving professionals seek to enhance their performance and climb to the top of a cutthroat industry. With an average salary of $195,000 (and many making significantly more), tech workers have the means to bypass lesser stimulants and go straight for the tried and true: cocaine. In an interview with National Geographic, a drug dealer who delivers high-grade cocaine to tech workers on demand, day or night, says, “A lot of my customers are tech-savvy guys who like to party and have a good time. [But cocaine also] gives them an edge to work all night.” Steve Albrecht, a substance abuse awareness specialist, says the desire for that edge is born in part from the extraordinary pressure on Silicon Valley workers to perform:

There’s this workaholism in the valley, where the ability to work on crash projects at tremendous rates of speed is almost a badge of honor. These workers stay up for days and days, and many of them gradually get into coke to keep going. Red Bull and coffee only gets them so far.

Eddy, a recovering addict and longtime tech worker, sees the effects of Silicon Valley’s dangerous mix of high expectations and deep pockets every time he attends a Los Gatos Narcotics Anonymous meeting:

You see very few of the old-school addicts; most of these are college-educated folks who, because of the stress of these tech jobs, start doing cocaine to stay up and Oxycodone to relax. Working 80-hour weeks and making crazy money extracts a horrible toll on you.

While some indulge clandestinely, making sure to keep use hidden from coworkers and superiors, in some work environments coke use goes beyond an open secret to just plain open, creating an environment of normalization and even feelings of obligation to partake. But for many, cocaine addiction is driven by deeper desires than professional success and peer support for drug use.

Searching for Meaning Beyond Money

“We are obsessed with drugs here,” says Jhonny, a San Francisco tech worker who makes $300,000 a year and spends a significant portion of that on cocaine. Jhonny is being interviewed for an episode of Drugs, Inc. called “Silicon Valley High.” On camera, he wears a mask and his voice is digitally altered to keep his identity secret, as public disclosure of his drug use could cost him everything. But even as he admits to spending thousands of dollars each year on cocaine, he maintains that his use is manageable, a belief that appears to be rooted primarily in his continued professional success; his tech career spans more than two decades, and he sees a sharp distinction between himself and his friends who have lost their jobs due to drug use. “I have developed special skills to conceal my usage. You’ve got to keep it discreet, you’ve got to keep it behind closed doors, in and amongst your friends, and you’ve got to show up to work.” Despite his claims to not be addicted, he continues ordering coke deliveries to his office even while acknowledging that it could destroy him professionally. Jhonny, however, doesn’t trace his cocaine use to work-related stress or ambitions. Instead, he turned to drugs for reasons shared by virtually all types of drug users: he wants to experience something greater than what he believes sober life offers him. “The reason I started doing drugs was that no matter how much money I made, there was something missing—that rush, that pure adrenaline excitement.” He finds that rush in the neat lines of white powder he cuts on his desk and inhales through a $100 bill.

While the experience of searching for emotional fulfillment in harmful chemicals is common amongst drug users, Silicon Valley may have unique qualities that inform this desire. Many people, including Jhonny, were attracted to tech due to the possibility for great financial gain and assume that money will translate into some form of meaningful satisfaction. However, research has found again and again that above a certain income level, money has no correlation with increased levels of emotional wellness. In a famous study on lottery winners, researchers found “people who had big wins on the lottery ended up no happier than those who had bought tickets but didn’t win”:

One way of accounting for this is to assume that lottery winners get used to their new level of wealth, and simply adjust back to a baseline level of happiness – something called the “hedonic treadmill”. Another explanation is that our happiness depends on how we feel relative to our peers. If you win the lottery you may feel richer than your neighbors, and think that moving to a mansion in a new neighbourhood would make you happy, but then you look out of the window and realize that all your new friends live in bigger mansions.

In Silicon Valley, you are embedded in a culture where you are surrounded by bigger mansions. But with a 60 to 80-hour work week, your opportunities for exploring potential true and sustainable sources of emotional fulfillment are limited. Particularly elusive is often the one source of real happiness that, unlike money, is not vulnerable to hedonic adaptation: close, meaningful relationships with other people. PBS’s This Emotional Life explains, “In contrast to material goods, we are more likely to continue to want our close relationships, even after we attain them, and to continue to derive positive emotions from them.” As the tech world’s crushing pace and extreme demands on workers damages your ability to nurture relationships with friends, partners, and family, you find a way to make your money temporarily fill the emotional void: by turning it into cocaine.

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Healing From Cocaine Addiction

The real risks of cocaine addiction go beyond losing your job or even criminal charges. Mood changes, psychosis, sexual dysfunction, heart attack, stroke, and death are all possible outcomes. For many, however, the most damaging aspect of cocaine is the loss of your true self; as cocaine overtakes your life, the things that used to matter to you fade away, you act against not only against your own self-interest but your core values, and your authentic self slips further and further from your grasp. Residential addiction treatment gives you the opportunity to end the process of self-destruction and rediscover yourself free from the grip of cocaine.

Alta Mira’s offers world-class luxury cocaine addiction treatment in a serene residential environment in Sausalito, California, a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley. Our multidisciplinary team of addiction experts understand the unique challenges faced by tech workers and give you the guidance to uncover the roots of your addictive drive and develop positive, healthy ways of meeting your needs. Here, you can find release from both your physical and psychological addiction to cocaine and engage in a profound process of personal transformation and growth that lays the foundation for long-term recovery. Through an innovative mix of individual and group therapies, holistic and experiential therapy, workshops, and 12-step peer support, you are able to reach ever-deeper levels of self-understanding and discover how to nurture your mind, body, and spirit to create real emotional fulfillment. In recovery, you can reclaim yourself and create a life with renewed purpose, tranquility, and possibility.

Alta Mira’s comprehensive addiction treatment program offers a full range of services for people struggling with cocaine addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process disorders. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one on the path to healing.