Using Marijuana Will Remain A Bad Career Move

Weed is Good? Not on Wall Street, or, for that matter, most workplaces.

Despite the national momentum toward softening cannabis laws—30 states allow, or are considering whether to allow, medicinal use of marijuana, and trend-setting Californiamay legalize it altogether—there is little reason to believe these developments will alter the way employers view the issue.

According to a senior HR executive at a bulge-bracket bank, who we'll call Hoyle for the purpose of protecting his identity, “For us, the issue isn’t of strict legality; it’s a business issue, and drug use—including marijuana—correlates with absenteeism and performance. Not to mention the potential liabilities. So in that sense, the legal status of marijuana is not going to affect our policies. While we do have a California office, we have no plans to accommodate those who might want to avail themselves of the local dispensaries,” says Hoyle.

Your job. Your prescription. Choose one.

In the states that currently allow the use of medical marijuana, courts have afforded no special rights or protections to workers. In 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s Compassionate Use Act was not intended to affect the rights of employers, and thus a company could fire a worker—despite his valid marijuana prescription—for failing a drug test.

A similar legal challenge may be brewing in Michigan, over the case of Wal-Mart’s firing of a cancer-stricken employee. Michigan’s law does specifically address workplace rights, mandating that a medical marijuana card-carrier cannot be "denied any right or privilege" by a "business or occupational or professional licensing board."

Because of that specific provision, The Wolverine State appears to be a likely testing ground in the conflict between state laws that legalize medicinal marijuana and companies’ own prohibitions, which often take their cue from federal law.

The federal Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which doctors may not prescribe (though they can "recommend" its use under the First Amendment). But whatever the outcome of any future litigation in Michigan or elsewhere, a legal landscape where employers are obligated to tolerate non-medicinal pot smoking by their workers appears to be a pipe dream.

High on whose time?

The status of marijuana in workplace culture is a bit murkier. Did Bill Clinton inhale? Remember when allegedly serious people cared about that? These days, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, roughly half of college students have smoked pot.

In so-called "hip" industries—dotcom, tech, reggae cover bands, new media, etc.—pot use is only a problem “if it’s a problem,” according to “Garp,” a creative director at a global advertising firm. The attitude among creative types ranges from indulgent to indifferent: “As long as we’re not talking about people getting high on company time, it’s basically ‘don’t ask/don’t tell,’” says Garp.

According to “Jim,” a veteran banker, even within the uptight and fiercely competitive culture of finance he has seen an uptick in marijuana use—or at least acknowledged use.

"Unlike drinking, [smoking] is unheard-of during working hours,” he says. “Otherwise, just like the whole culture, it's more prevalent. Although people are still very, very careful ... the taboo has weakened. Among colleagues, the process is very subtle, but people do ‘out’ themselves," says Jim. "However, one line that never gets crossed is [smoking] around clients. Of course, getting drunk with clients is standard."

The Jimmy Fun

Hoyle the Wall Street HR executive notes “none of us are so naïve as to think that drug use in our industry is not at least as prevalent as in society generally. But our employees, unlike Wal-Mart’s, are only drug tested once, at the start of their employment, so if they’re discreet, we wouldn’t know. Although come to think of it, the guys buying all those CDOs must have been stoned.”

The need for absolute discretion, perhaps, diminishes if one ascends high enough. The pot-loving proclivities of Bear Stearns’ Jimmy Cayne were an open secret, according to the Kitty Kelly biography.

And more than one source recounted one prominent trader’s tradition of buying blocks (estimates range from “dozens” to “more than a hundred”) of tickets to the annual Allman Brothers concerts in New York City, where he and his guests—clients and colleagues alike—party like, well, members of the crowd at an Allman Brothers show.