Work/Life Blur #2: (Not That) Happy Hour
America is a little hazy about mentioning pot in the workplace. Like a zoo animal, the once-feared marijuana plant is now tamed and approachable; Middle America can safely observe it through the glass of the media and the security of Federal prohibition. But we are a nation split on the issue. Fault lines between legal states and the rest have thrust a traditionally “deviant” subculture into the public eye and demanded a seismic overhaul of marijuana’s image. Despite increasing acceptance, there remains one place where the taboo against marijuana use persists: your job.
The TSA, grandmothers, and the majority of public opinion have undergone a sea change. However, most Americans still play their proverbial cannabis cards close to their chest, comfortable with the lower profile they’ve always assumed on the subject and uncomfortable with idea of broaching it in the realm of their workplace.
I posed a tough question to employers and employees across different regions and industries to gauge their willingness to bring up the subject of marijuana in the workplace. Where indicated with an asterisk, their names have been changed – a telling fact in itself- and at the end of their interview, I issued a rating of the profession’s degree of openness on the subject, using a displeased emoji.
🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 = Taboo. Don’t ever mention it.
🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 = Can discuss it in the abstract
🙁 🙁 🙁 = Can admit to a “high school” story
🙁 🙁 = Can talk freely about it
🙂 = Can smoke at work.
The question: To what extent is marijuana taboo in your workplace?
Region: The South
There’s not a lot of grass around the hospital. There’s even a clause in many contracts which would fire you for, “conduct unbecoming.” Which is funny because people drink a ton and still say, “Well, since everyone knows I have a drinking problem, bottoms up!” Until its legal status changes though, smoking puts your medical license in jeopardy. Because of that, the culture of smoking among doctors is private and closed. In [redacted location in Northeast] for five years, we had drinks with other doctors and I never heard anyone disclose at all. Maybe they referenced smoking in college, but there’s a very real legal threat in many hospitals with their status as drug-free organizations. Most have a piss test. As for, say, a Colorado doctor, I’m sure the hospital would maintain the same stance even though it’s not illegal to do drugs.
In medicine, it is taboo. There’s more of a fear of malpractice as a surgeon than for other types of doctor, but none of it makes sense when you compare the cultures of drinking and marijuana and how the substances impair you. Motor skills, brain atrophy… we have a nicely documented sense of the way alcohol is bad for you, but because of weed’s legal status and general history, people don’t treat it the same. It’s not as well-documented how to determine impairment. The metabolites persist for a long time and we don’t have as good an understanding of impairment. To become accepted here, there would have to be a clinical judgment, which is tough because some people would always fail. Like, what if they can’t ever say the alphabet backwards?
🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁
Profession: Freelance Music Journalist
Region: New Orleans
It’s illegal. Even in small amounts, it must be hidden from public view. But it’s talked about, consumed and shared almost universally. During interviews, they pack bowls, roll joints- from small names to big names. Even when the recorder’s going, I’ve had them say, “don’t worry about this bowl on the record. It’s not like we’re doing coke. But if we did, that might be a long interview.” But weed has moved to non-issue status. At its worst, it could be considered a faux-pas. Now, print journalism is different than television. TV is prettier, better-looking, sharper, and less open about weed. I’d have to say the South is about five years behind the rest of the country on this, but it will be legal.
Profession: Regional Manager, US Department of Health and Human Services
Region: Washington, DC
It’s very taboo. No colleagues mind, but it’s a weird balancing act. While voters have said “f-you” to Congress with their votes, one of Reagan’s Executive Orders of 1986  established the Drug Free Federal Workplace. This makes the offense fire-able, and it’s even worse if you have security clearance. You become “blackmailable.” You might be asked on a polygraph, “Is it possible for someone to blackmail you?” Speaking in the abstract, though, is different. People talk about way they voted on the ballot initiative. The etiquette? There are no official guidelines, everyone is pretending like [Initiative 71] didn’t happen. But there are more visible marijuana users in their 30s. They see it as an alternative to drinking, and there are more professionals coming out of the closet. One thing in DC is that District employees can freely discuss whatever- federal government employees cannot. Which gets weird in the District, because like half the city is federal land, and you need to know if the park or building you’re in is federal. The Washington Post published a map where they show it.
🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁
Profession: Elementary School Educator
To what extent is it taboo? Completely. A cocktail is OK, but with people you know. The way I am, I don’t say anything first. Yes, I’ve always assumed that most people will, but I’m never the one to bring it up.
🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁
Profession: Restaurant Owner
It is a fire-able offense. But some of my staff were so stupid, when they’d do it in-house they’d get busted. By me. But it is an understood thing, which everyone knows, but no one talks about. There was one employee who I would insist go out to his truck to smoke. I’d say, “go clock out. You’re overwhelmed.” Not for the rest of the employees, just him. There’s high-functioning people, who can be high-functioning before or after. There’s also short-functioning people. I think a lot depends on personality type. It’s not like the proverbial cigarette smoke break. With stoners you’re dealing with a base level of stupidity. Ugh, the number of times I found a joint in the freezer and they tried to make me think I had left it there…
🙁 🙁 🙁
Region: Alberta, Canada
Is it taboo? No, but they get drug-tested as soon as they go on-site to start a new job, for orientation. It’s job site policy that you’re not supposed to have consumption of alcohol, drugs, use firearms, etc. It’s because of liability, injuries and incidents. First thing in the event of an accident is they drug test you. Right away. Cut yourself with a knife? Drug test. Hit something with the truck? Drug test. Some of our sites are dangerous: oil fields, sand fields, mines. It’s funny because people could go on leave, do crystal meth, have a week off, and piss clean because the body metabolizes it. Sure, the West Coast is more laid-back, you know. In Vancouver they talk more about it, for sure.
🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁
Profession: Gun dealer
Region: The South
Yes. It’s taboo. There’s a question on the form to buy a gun where you have to admit if you are an, “unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana, or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.” You have to check that box to buy a gun, so anyone with a gun and using marijuana is also perjuring themselves on a federal document.
🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁
The taboo? Even as a musician, it’s still there. In some of these sheltered, white pockets, marijuana has some negative connotations. Nashville, for example, has this huge music scene, but there’s this militant attitude that smoking hurts your playing, your attention span. Even in Boston, there’s a surprising number of straight edge musicians. Among the punk and hard rock scenes they are a little more anti-weed, too. In front of powerful people, producers, I’ve had bandmates try to leverage not smoking to make themselves look better. This shows the example of how the stigma persists: trying to embarrass a smoker. There will always be a stigma that the traditional high-level corporate image of the “Old Boys’ Club” from the cocaine-fueled 1980s will never accept. You know, it’s easier to talk about sex in the workplace, and there’s even laws against it.
Profession: Software Developer, former music industry executive
My answer would be the same for both industries: yes, it’s taboo. It’s treated totally differently than alcohol. I’d maybe even go so far as to say you can have a beer socially at lunch, but I would never smoke at lunch. Old social mores will persist until the generation that embraced legality replaces the old Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” generation.
🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁
Profession: Lt. Colonel, Marine Reserves
Working for the Federal Government, it’s not legal. It’s a different culture. The tension between state and federal law is not an issue. You can’t even use it medicinally- you’d be “unfit for service.” If you’re terminally ill and need it, then you can’t be active in the Marine Corps. I don’t think the military will ever be permissive; we have a lot of weapons, nuclear warheads, multi-million dollar machines and leadership under the guidance of our military. You need to be present. Even if evidence-based, scientific research trumped its current status, the culture of leadership and accountability would not be supported by the taxpayers. Even if the military said it was cool, the taxpayers wouldn’t. The culture of drinking has diminished, too. With DUIs, etc., the military focuses on social progress more than experiment in what they can consume. For example, look at stress disorder medication. There are more active military with PTSD who are mitigating it with non-medication, who work out, stop drinking or do yoga. When it comes to marijuana in the military, it’s like the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. You might have a pilot smoking pot, crashes the plane. Whoops! Alcohol has been legal for so long that they’ve laid out what really are the tolerable limits in your bloodstream. Maybe in the next twenty-five years, they’ll be there with marijuana, where they’ve got those cheater cards to determine your BAC, or some sort of regulatory controls to determine impairment to quantify it. By the way, right now in SF, it’s not legitimately accepted, but it’s everywhere, and the shops attract the weirdest people. There’s security at the storefront, but around the corner it attracts a seedy element. There is definite tension between policy and practice.
🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁
Oil Field Worker
You could get in enormous trouble. Since the inception of drug testing, it’s totally different. Weed turned out to be way worse than anything else because it stayed in your system. When unions negotiated with oil companies, they imposed the drug tests upon them. Unions signed the initial contract, and now they can’t get rid of it. They’d rather keep the oil contract than dump the drug clause. “We’re for weed!” Who’s gonna say that? They rolled over on that. It’s legal in Alaska, legal in Seattle, but you can go down for it. No one wants to be that guy.
🙁 🙁 🙁
Based on the stubbornness of this “green taboo,” it seems the nation’s embrace has not penetrated deep enough into our culture to change the climate of the workplace. Without improved impairment-testing technology and with such a broad spectrum of personal tolerance and functionality, the very real fears of intoxication on the job have yet to uncouple from generations of propaganda. Faced with unwavering bottom lines, most leaders in most industries in most places aren’t going to experiment with the path less traveled until the smoke clears.
Embrace the intersection of work and life through the Workbar blog’s new channel, “Blur“. Each installment explores new territory in the proving grounds of modern thought and culture in the workplace.
About the Author: Dave Gentry is a fan of progress and recess. He believes in old English, new fortune cookies and he answers to #davertido.