Can You Work Better While High?
A newfound appreciation for toking up on the job
Besides their outsized reputations in the annals of literature, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, and Honoré de Balzac had something else in common: their interest in weed. They were all members of the Club des Hashischins — the “Hash Club” — formed in the 19th century as a way to provide opportunities for these towering figures and other celebrated creatives to explore the benefits of writing while high.
Shocked? Probably not. It’s a long-held assumption that many artistic types throughout history have at least experimented with substances. Step outside the world of the highly creative, though, and the picture changes: Being high in the workplace is generally not considered responsible or productive.
Yet data suggests that more people are using cannabis on the job. In 2018 nearly 3% of drug tests among workers and job applicants proved positive for marijuana, a 16% jump from 2014, according to a study of more than 10 million drug tests by lab testing firm Quest Diagnostics.
As marijuana laws and attitudes continue to evolve toward tolerance, could this change?
There’s reason to believe mixing pot and work may not be as problematic as once thought. Some scientists, physicians, and other experts are going as far as to suggest that for some people, pot can even be a tool for increasing productivity. “It depends on the individual and the job,” says Michael Tagen, a PhD pharmacology researcher who consults pharmaceutical companies about marijuana neuroscience. “But there are tantalizing hints from studies, and lots of anecdotal evidence, that it can help some people.”
There are obvious reasons why being high at work can be a problem. Pot is still illegal in 13 states, even for medical purposes, and there are tight restrictions around possession and consumption everywhere else. It’s a firing offense at many, if not most, organizations, and well over half of all companies drug test, according to a study by the National Safety Council.
What’s more, jobs often entail responsibilities that don’t safely allow for altered consciousness. Few people would want their pilot or Uber driver to be high. Among employees of all types, those who tested positive for pot had a 55% higher rate of industrial accidents than negative testees, according to a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. To be fair, that sort of data doesn’t establish that pot always or even usually causes the trouble. Still, caution is clearly warranted in jobs where lives and property are at risk.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to see how people who use pot to relieve health problems might work more effectively when high. A partial list of health challenges which seem to be helped by marijuana includes: chronic pain, multiple sclerosis discomfort, Parkinson’s disease tremors, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, nausea, glaucoma, and PTSD — all issues that are likely to interfere with work. A Johns Hopkins study published in March found that the legalization of medical marijuana in a state correlates with a greater likelihood of staying on the job among older people. That’s probably because older workers, who are especially prone to leaving employment because of health impairments, are gaining enough relief from pot to stick with their jobs.
Can pot also improve work performance for those without compelling medical needs? Growing evidence suggests that it can, at least for a subset of the population. Some of that evidence comes from neuroscientist Angela Bryan of the University of Colorado Boulder, who has been at the forefront of studying marijuana’s impact on different types of performance. “In our research, some people say they’re better able to concentrate and filter out noise, and some seem to do a bit better cognitively,” says Bryan. She adds that one of her academic colleagues privately credits pot with her ability to complete a PhD dissertation.
While such observations seem to fly in the face of the image of the wasted couch potato pothead unable to string together two sentences, new insights into what pot actually does in the brain lend some credence to the counterintuitive claims. Several studies on animals given regular doses of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — have shown clear improvements in various measures of cognitive functioning such as memory and socialization, says Tagen. New brain-imaging research tends to confirm the benefits may extend to humans, he notes. “MRI studies show that after consuming THC, different parts of the brain become connected more strongly. The studies haven’t provided definitive answers yet, but they provide some suggestions that THC can help with many types of tasks.”
That may help explain ultra-high-achievers-slash-weedophiles like Carl Sagan (the late astrophysicist and science popularizer) and former NFL running back Ricky Williams, as well as everyday workers who credit pot with being able to thrive at their jobs. One of them is Ben Rohmer, a Rhode Island dog trainer who relies on “dabbing” — inhaling outsized hits from a bong-like device designed to vaporize waxy forms of highly concentrated pot — at least five times a day. “It focuses me, and allows me to go right down the list of things I have to do at work,” he says. “And it keeps me from getting bored and irritated.”
“I’ve seen big investors vaping high-THC concentrates right in the middle of meetings.”
Len May, the CEO of biotech startup EndoCanna Health in Los Angeles, says he takes in a lower-THC, higher-CBD mix of pot in the morning after his early-morning yoga and before heading to the office. “I know lots of executives who consume during the day,” he says. “I’ve seen big investors vaping high-THC concentrates right in the middle of meetings.”
The fact that pot can be relaxing is a well-accepted notion. In the context of productivity, that effect has conventionally been framed as promoting apathy and a lack of motivation. But one person’s apathy is another person’s freedom to perform in a calmer, steadier way. “Stress and anxiety are the enemies of work,” says Karyemaître Aliffe, a Seattle-based physician and PhD researcher who runs a small biotech company and teaches at the University of Miami’s medical school. “Cognitive and creative functioning are both diminished when people are stressed. Taking anxiety down 20% will change someone’s life.”
The creativity boost that pot is often said to confer on musicians and other artists is rarely portrayed as a potential benefit in other lines of work. Bryan wonders why: “To be expansive in thinking is an advantage in a lot of different jobs outside of the arts,” she says. “Certainly we in science deal with esoteric theories and how seemingly unrelated things might relate to one other.” That sort of “divergent thinking” — essentially, a tendency to think outside the box or brainstorm — is often a byproduct of being high.
There may be a way to reconcile the zonked, scatterbrained state people can find themselves in after a joint at a party with the demands of the workplace: dosing. A low dose of THC is 1 or 2 milligrams, what you might get from taking a light, quick hit from a joint. That’s compared to the 30 to 60 milligrams of THC people can get from smoking an entire joint. (Edibles typically contain 5 to 10 milligrams of THC per portion, but because of chemical interactions that happen in the gut, the dose can actually gain strength by the time it hits the brain.)
“At ordinary or lower doses THC is anxiolytic, and at high doses it’s anxiogenic,” says Tristan Watkins, a PhD neuroscientist and chief science officer at marijuana product manufacturer LucidMood in Boulder, Colorado. Translation: A little pot is relaxing, and a lot of pot can bring on a disabling panic attack. Likewise, a small dose might sharpen focus, cognition, and creativity for some users, while a large one can be dulling and disorienting
Watkins argues that the mix of the various ingredients found in pot is also important in determining whether taking a hit or two will be an aid or obstacle to getting things done. The two main active ingredients in marijuana are THC and the non-psychoactive CBD, but there are hundreds of other compounds that may impact thought and mood. CBD is generally believed to reduce the impact of THC — if in ways that aren’t well understood. But whether the effect of any of the other ingredients is significant remains a controversial question, with little solid research to back up any point of view.
Still, THC is by far the most powerful ingredient in marijuana and the only significantly psychoactive one, and thus remains the focus of most questions about the suitability of pot in the workplace. Besides the dose size, say experts, the key variable when it comes to whether THC is likely to help or hurt at work is the individual who’s taking it. Neuropharmaceutical consultant Tagen says that the available evidence strongly suggests that while there do seem to be people who actually become sharper when they take THC, most users find their ability to sustain attention on a task impaired by pot. “The percentage of people who get improved focus and motivation from THC is a small one,” he says. Whether it will actually interfere with the job also depends on the type of tasks involved, he adds, explaining that animal studies suggest THC doesn’t impair the ability to perform repetitive tasks, but makes it harder to learn new ones.
On the other hand, the negative effects from THC tend to be limited mostly to those who take it only occasionally. “It’s definitely the case that a lot of tolerance can build up with frequent use,” says Tagen. “That’s especially true of any cognitive impairment.” (It’s important to note that there is some evidence, if mixed, that pot can have unique longer-term negative consequences on heavy teenage users, whose brains, after all, are still developing.)
The fact that pot does seem to help some people with work, whether through symptom relief or some measure of enhanced focus or creativity, ought to lead to more open-minded conversations about its judicious use in the workplace, argues Aliffe, the Seattle physician-researcher. At a minimum, he thinks pot ought to be treated in the same way as another psychoactive substance often employed on the job: caffeine. “If someone drinks five cups of coffee and gets wired for meetings, everyone thinks it’s great that they have so much energy,” he says. “But if someone has a little cannabis to relax, then they’re seen as lazy and distracted. Nothing about any substance or experience is as binary as our culture likes to make it.”
Science isn’t likely to fully clarify the issues around pot in the workplace any time soon, says Bryan. Federal law still makes it difficult for researchers to study pot and there are few sources for the funding needed to conduct the larger, more expensive controlled studies that might provide fuller answers.
In the absence of decisive information, LucidMood’s Watkins offers one piece of advice for people wondering if pot might work out for them on the job: Try it over the weekend when tackling some chores around the home. “If it messes up those plans, that’s not as big a deal as being at the office when you discover it’s a bad idea,” he says. “And if it goes well at home, you might be onto something.”