Buzzkill: Tech companies grapple with workers getting high on the job

Survey shows a quarter of the workforce is getting stoned while at the office or WFH

It’s never been easier to get high while you work. And it’s never been harder for employers to figure out what, if anything, to do about that.

Eighteen states have legalized marijuana, and more than 5 million Americans have been prescribed medicinal marijuana. At the same time, some 50 million Americans have worked from the privacy of their own home in the past two years, with their stash and munchies within arm’s reach.

In the tech industry — perceived by many as very friendly to weed — the issue is particularly interesting. And in San Francisco, the smell of weed smoke has become as much a part of The City as the fog. Celebrating the upcoming, unofficial weed holiday 4/20 here is like celebrating water day in the undersea city of Atlantis.

What does all that add up to? A quarter of the workforce is occasionally getting high while working, according to a recent survey. Twenty-six percent of employees at tech companies based in the Bay Area answered yes to the question “Have you used cannabis for medical or non-medical purposes while working in the office or at home in the last three months?”

The anonymous survey of 2,514 verified professionals in the U.S. was conducted by the social network Blind, which requires registration with a company email address, April 12-13. The online survey was both self-reporting and anonymous, but it also provides a rare glimpse into a topic tech workers might be loathe to openly discuss.

And it’s in line with other studies about tech workers. A December 2021 study from the University of Michigan surveyed 803 software developers about their use of cannabis and found that 35% had tried programming while using cannabis, and 18% currently do so at least once a month.

And a poll of 1,000 workers released in November found 21% admitted they’ve used alcohol, marijuana or other recreational drugs during work hours while employed sometime in 2021.

For some tech workers, occasionally using weed while working is comparable to drinking lots of coffee — and more natural than popping a stimulant like Adderall.

“It’s not something I do often. This work requires a lot of focus,” a software engineer in their 20s who lives in The City told The Examiner. “But occasionally there are days when you aren’t quite yourself, and using cannabis can help switch your focus when you’re stuck.” The engineer, who requested anonymity for themselves and their employer, estimated they get high and work about once every other month.

So what’s the big deal about tech workers getting high on the job? If you’re sitting at home working on a laptop, you’re not going to kill somebody because you’re stoned.

Some people even believe they work better high, although recent research suggests otherwise.

A 2020 San Diego State study found “a decline in performance when using cannabis prior to or while on the job.” The study, which researchers believe was the first to assess workplace behavior of high employees in 20 years, used an interesting methodology: It surveyed 281 employees and their direct supervisors. (Imagine taking part in a study in which your boss watched you work high. Talk about weed-induced paranoia.)

Importantly, the San Diego State study found no evidence that marijuana use after work affected job performance in any way. (In fact, the researchers said it might help.) “Individuals deciding to consume cannabis after finishing their work may be able to distract themselves from stressful on-the-job issues,” wrote lead researcher Dr. Jeremy Bernerth. “They may subsequently return with more stamina to devote to their job.”

Got that? Get high at night for the good of the company. But getting high at work is hard on the company because so many things are changing with marijuana legality and use that employers can’t keep up.

The federal law that outlaws marijuana use has always been the fallback for companies, which often do business globally and need one policy for employees. (State legalization of weed gives you the right to smoke. That doesn’t mean your employer has to accommodate that.)

But that federal law, the Controlled Substances Act, is under fire in the courts and Congress. The Supreme Court is currently considering looking at workers compensation cases that involve medicinal marijuana. If companies have to pay for it, how can it be illegal nationally? And the House has passed a marijuana legalization bill and sent it to the Senate.

Everything is up in the air, experts say.

“We’re looking at a real sea change,” said attorney James Reidy of the New England firm Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green, who has advised companies on marijuana policy for years. “Ultimately we are looking at what are the consequences of legalization.”

But companies can’t just wait until everything gets sorted out. “If you turn a blind eye, you could be liable,” Reidy said.

Really? At tech companies? Coal mines and trucking companies, sure. But techies typing on the couch?

Here’s the nightmare scenario: A manager knows an employee is high during cybersecurity training, in fact they joke about it on the recorded Zoom call. A week later there is a data breach that costs the company millions. The insurance company looking into the breach reviews the Zoom call, and voila!: liability.

What would happen if cannabis use was involved in a problem at a company working with the federal government, or at a company handling financial data, or at a social network under fire to find disinformation, or at a robotics company that had an accident?

“Those are all unanswered questions,” Brian Allen, vice president of government affairs at the insurance technology company Mitchell told The Examiner. Those scenarios might be unlikely, but insurers are paid to watch out for them.

But if tech companies ban weed or test for it, they will lose badly needed talent. “You have to be able to recruit,” Allen said. “If you fired everyone who tested positive, there would be no one left.”

Besides, Allen pointed out, “Most people are using it responsibly.” (Remember, getting high after work may be for the good of the company.)

So what should companies do?

“The best thing for any company is a clear policy, such as ‘You can’t be impaired at work,’” Allen said. By anything. Just don’t work impaired. Many companies have a policy that prohibits use of “illegal drugs.” That may not address marijuana.

Less than half (45%) of organizations have a written policy addressing cannabis, according to the National Safety Council, a 100-year-old nonprofit safety advocacy group.

But even after you nail down the risk aspect, it’s still not easy for managers to enforce. “If someone’s not looking right or acting right, you ask questions,” Allen said. “It’s an awkward conversation you have to have as a manager.”

To say the least. Imagine your manager calling you and asking, “Hey, your eyes were red on that Zoom call. Are you too stoned to work?”

“The manager is in a tough position,” said Reidy, the New England attorney who advises companies.

That might make managers feel like an assistant principal after lunch at a California high school.

But experts say it’s important to realize that, when it comes to work, weed is now where booze was a generation ago.

“People used to get bombed at lunch, and that was tolerated,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at Wharton, the renowned business school at the University of Pennsylvania. But bad things happened, and companies woke up to their responsibility to call out drunkenness.

“Marijuana is no different than alcohol or anything else that distracts from the job,” said Cappelli.

In the end, employees make the decision about using cannabis while working, and most just seem to find it impractical, according to many comments on the social network Blind that ran the survey.

“I don’t know who these guys/gals are who smoke weed and code,” a Facebook employee wrote. “I can’t do math/logic when I’m high. Best I can do is watch ‘Teletubbies’.”

A cloud of smoke rises from the crowd at 4:20 pm at the 420 event at Hippie Hill in 2019. The unofficial marijuana celebration event will return this year. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A cloud of smoke rises from the crowd at 4:20 pm at the 420 event at Hippie Hill in 2019. The unofficial marijuana celebration event will return this year. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

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