Network Rail safety worker fails drug test after drinking tea made from coca leaves

Two railway workers in London in 2012
A Network Rail safety worker failed a drug test at work after buying a tea made from the leaves of the coca plant - violettenlandungoy/iStock Unreleased

A Network Rail safety worker failed a drug test at work after mistakenly buying tea from a market stall made with leaves from the cocaine plant.

Paul Glenholmes bought “Inka Tea” from a market stall in September 2020 to help with digestive problems caused by his disability medication - but subsequently failed a drug test at work as he was four times over the cut-off amount for misuse of a controlled substance.

Inka tea, also known as mate de coca tea, is a herbal drink made from the raw or dried leaves of the coca plant, native to South America. The coca plant is also known for its psychoactive chemical – cocaine.

Mr Glenholmes did not know what was in the product, but found the tea helped with his digestive problems. However, weeks later he tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite for cocaine used in urine tests when looking for drug use.

He was suspended from his job days later while an investigation was launched, and subsequently sacked.

An East Midlands employment tribunal heard that Mr Glenholmes started work at Network Rail as train technician - a health and safety role - in 2014.

The operator has a strict drugs policy, whereby if any employees test positive for substances they are suspended with immediate effect.

Having researched the Inka tea, the safety worker told bosses after he failed the test that the tea was the likely cause as he had not checked the ingredients before drinking it.

“Having the information and research which I now know, I would not have in good conscience bought the product or consumed it,” he said.

Mr Glenholmes was invited to a disciplinary hearing on the basis that he had “knowingly ingested coca tea without understanding what it contained”.

Sample retested

However, citing ill health, the safety worker informed bosses he would not be attending and he later raised a grievance for a lack of “due diligence” by bosses when commencing the investigation.

Months later, he asked for his urine sample to be re-tested and asked the laboratory how cocaine and coca tea can be differentiated, so it would not happen again.

In response, they said the benzoylecgonine metabolite would be detected in both cases as it is an ingestion of cocaine.

The laboratory added: “This is because coca tea is made from coca plant leaves and contains cocaine. This means that [Mr Glenholmes] has used cocaine. Drinking cocaine in tea does not make it legal”.

Mr Glenholmes’ re-test found the cocaine in his system was four times over the cut-off amount, which is “consistent with misuse of a controlled drug”.

Nearly two years after the drug test, following a long period of sick leave, his disciplinary hearing was held and the safety worker was sacked.

Appeal rejected

Mr Glenholmes appealed this decision, which was rejected, and later took Network Rail to an employment tribunal to sue for unfair dismissal.

Giving evidence at the tribunal, Mr Glenholmes said he was aware the hot drink was not “ordinary green tea”, and that he had consumed it without knowing what it contained.

Employment Judge Martin Brewer said by consuming the tea, there is “no doubt” that Mr Glenholmes was “deserving of blame”.

He said: “I am in no doubt that [he] was entirely to blame for his dismissal. He deliberately drank tea from South America without knowing, and not researching prior to drinking it, what it contained.”

Judge Brewer added: “Here [Mr Glenholmes] was wholly blameworthy.

“There were no other contributing factors to his dismissal other than the failed drug test which he could have avoided if he had done the research he did after the failed drug test either before he drank the tea or shortly thereafter once he was aware of its efficacy. But he chose not to.”

Dismissal was ‘reasonable’

The judge said Mr Glenholmes “deliberately contradicted the terms” of the company’s drug policy by “not finding out what he was ingesting when drinking tea from South America”.

He said his dismissal was “within the band of reasonable responses” from Network Rail because Mr Glenholmes was “wholly to blame”.

However, procedural errors in sacking the Network Rail worker meant his claims of unfair dismissal succeeded, but the judge denied him compensation.

Mr Glenholmes’ additional claim of unauthorised deductions from wages was dismissed.

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