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Wall St: Buy, Sell Or Hold (It In)

The hard-charging finance culture wouldn’t seem to be a natural fit for marijuana, known for slowing reaction times and blurring brain activity.

But then came “Wall Street Journal” reporter Kate Kelly’s book "Street Fighters", an account of the last days of storied investment bank Bear Stearns. Among its revelations: The extracurricular interests of its top general, Jimmy Cayne.

“Cayne had another habit that would soon cause the firm embarrassment: He liked to smoke marijuana,” Kelly writes. “This pastime was well known to some close associates, who had seen him smoking in his Park Avenue apartment. It had also come to the attention of some of the regulars on the bridge circuit, where Cayne was known to retire to his room after the day's play and tuck into his pot stash as a way to relax.”

And there’s the rub: While marijuana doesn’t accelerate much of anything, for some it serves as an antidote to the high-octane Wall Street workday.

“It’s a wind-down from the culture, and puts you in a different place away from all the stress,” says one forty-something marijuana user who works for a large New York City-based asset manager. “It’s scarily easy to get the number of a service to call up, and they’ll be at your door within the hour. It’s almost like going to Amsterdam, with all the different types and packaging and brand names.”

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Pricey services like that are also unimposing for highly-compensated Wall Street types, who might also presume that the lofty price tag guarantees a degree of secrecy and anonymity.

Nevertheless, marijuana use may not suit certain Wall Street subsets. If you’re in a field that requires split-second reactions, pot probably isn’t your illicit drug of choice.

“I’d be surprised if many traders used marijuana, since they’re in more aggressive and rapid-fire positions,” he says. “There, you’d find cocaine in much higher propensity. Where you see marijuana on Wall Street is in the more intellectual arenas, like research or legal departments.”

But marijuana’s use in the most buttoned-down of corporate environments, amid the towers of lower Manhattan, isn’t a surprise to some.

“Like many Americans with stressful, fast-paced careers, Wall Street traders—and even executives—know that marijuana can be a way to unwind,” says David Bienenstock, senior editor of “High Times Magazine.” “New York’s a city where you can get anything you want if you've got the money, and much of the best herb in Gotham makes its way down to the financial district.”

Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be as much of a stigma about the drug in financial circles as in years past. Consider the attitude of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, creator of financial-data giant Bloomberg and New York’s richest man. His reply, when asked about his use of the drug: “You bet I did—and I enjoyed it.”

So did one partner in an investment advisory firm, now in his mid-sixties, whose introduction to the drug in his college days was “the beginning of a wonderful relationship,” he laughs. Not one without controversy, though: At a previous firm, he had to swear off it to make partner (which he did, reluctantly, before taking it up again years later).

Photo by Oliver Quillia for CNBC

“No doubt it’s more widespread on Wall Street than people think,” he says. “It’s probably used in finance just as much as in any other walk of life. But it is illegal, after all, so it’s still a very sensitive issue to talk about.”

The allegations about Bear Stearns’ Jimmy Cayne—which Cayne himself strenuously denied—may have ripped the lid off this curious Wall Street subculture, especially since it came during a time of unprecedented crisis.

“For years, these situations remained mostly under wraps, as Bear and its CEO remained feared and admired,” Kate Kelly writes. “But as the housing boom showed its first signs of strain, Cayne's foibles seemed less amusing.”

Indeed, smack in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis, Andrew Lahde, manager of a small California hedge fund, Lahde Capital, decided to close up shop, and in a goodbye letter extolled the virtues of pot and railed against its legal status: "My only conclusion as to why it is illegal, is that Corporate America, which owns Congress, would rather sell you Paxil, Zoloft, Xanax and other additive drugs, than allow you to grow a plant in your home without some of the profits going into their coffers. This policy is ludicrous."

If marijuana is a counterbalance to crisis, though, then it’s perhaps unsurprising that it was put to use during the worst of the financial meltdown.

And Jimmy Cayne aside, marijuana use on the Street is by no means limited to a handful of pot-loving rogues. “There are a lot of people who do it,” says the New York asset manager. “But it’s definitely something I don’t advertise.”