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The Most Controversial Productivity Hack: Getting High At Work

People have been consuming illicit substances on the job since time immemorial. But, in an era of legal pot, is this okay?

The Most Controversial Productivity Hack: Getting High At Work
[Laughing Duo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Inspiration, they say, can come from anywhere. When creative director Richard Hatter wants to finish an 80-hour illustration, he doesn’t restrict himself to a strong cup of coffee.

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No, Hatter will spark up a joint, and get to work.

Smoking pot at the studio might be a firing offense in most workplaces, but not at his company. Hatter works for Hired Guns Creative, a Nanaimo, British Columbia-based branding boutique. They primarily do packaging design for wine companies and are just edging into the marijuana market with product design for edible and drink companies out of Washington, California, and Colorado. Hatter is also a partner of the company.

“It helps me focus in,” he says of his process. “It helps me get in the zone and look at different angles. It’s something I use as a tool in my life to get a creative edge.”

Hatter is quick to stress that his job description doesn’t involve accounting or working the books, and if he has a meeting with clients, “I’m not rolling in there with a Scooby-Doo van.” Still, he considers his particular habit to be an “advantage” in business.

As attitudes toward marijuana begin to shift, with Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia being the recent states to vote in favor of legalized marijuana, is it time to look at drugs in the workplace with a new perspective? After all, taking drugs at—and for—work is a deeply engrained and well-documented part of American history. There’s even some science behind it.


Part of the shifting mores of workplace drug use has to do with the changes of what constitutes “illicit” drugs themselves.

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In the late 19th century, cocaine was used as a local anesthetic, as well as general stimulant (the inventor of the radical mastectomy, William Halsten, was a noted cokehead). Amphetamine has been used for everything from weight loss to keeping Air Force pilots alert during long haul flights—all legally.

And then there are the drug cultures associated with professions: Any movie about Wall Street in the ‘80s wouldn’t be complete without a reference to cocaine. Performance-enhancing substances in professional sports take any number of forms, from Lance Armstrong’s eventual admission that he relied on testosterone, corticosteroids, and blood doping to help him win the Tour du France, to Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones’s admission to using steroids. Doping scandals in Major League Baseball have become increasingly less shocking as a result of how commonplace they are. Dock Ellis famously pitched a no-hitter on LSD.

And the U.S. military has a long history of testing the affects of various drugs. Between 1955 and 1975, thousands of volunteer military personnel were exposed to low doses of chemical warfare agents at Edgewood Arsenal. For 7,000 soldiers, absorbing agents like BZ, LSD, and mustard gas was just part of the gig—one with life-changing results. The army found that 16% of those volunteers given LSD experienced lifelong consequences such as flashbacks, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Even when drugs have not been procured just for their effect on the workplace, they are still a part of millions of people’s lives. This has been the subject of years of study by Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry, at Columbia University.

Hart is known for his ambitious efforts to change the conversation about drug use and addiction. His extensive research has lead him to conclude that drugs aren’t doing the most harm to society, it’s the laws and policies behind them

For years, his experiments, funded by National Institute of Drug Abuse, a federal government research institute that focuses on the science of drugs and addiction, examined how drugs in the workplace affected cognitive performance, primarily focusing on methamphetamine. What he discovered would likely make any seasoned HR personnel squirm.

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“Based on the research I’ve done, drugs are useful in the workplace,” he says. “The evidence is overwhelming.”

In a study from 2002 that examined how using methamphetamine affects cognitive behavior in shift work, for example, Hart found that the drug worked in much the same way as coffee does to help people stay alert and focused. The study recruited men and women who had previously used stimulants to live in a lab for three weeks, where they would work eight-hour shifts starting at midnight. The research showed that the drug “attenuates disruptions in performance and mood.” In simple terms, it helped them work better.

“We know that there’s millions of people who are prescribed amphetamines for a variety of reasons, and they’re taking them at work,” he says. “They’re doing that in order to perform better, but we pretend we don’t know that.”

Hart does stress however, that there are nuances to his findings, such as the type of drug being taken, the doses being consumed, and the level of experience of the user. (Alcohol, not surprisingly, wasn’t found to be helpful when it comes to productivity, though it does have real benefits at a wearisome office party.)

He likens drugs to cars—they can be useful or harmful, depending on how they’re used.


For Jonas—who didn’t want to use his real name—using drugs during office hours proved to be the latter.

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“It was like Icarus and Daedalus,” he says. “At the beginning it does work, but it comes at a price. It’s not sustainable. It’s short-lived.”

Jonas worked as a consultant for an interactive agency during the ‘90s dotcom boom, a company who were considered the industry’s rock stars at the time. When he was assigned to write a proposal for a high-profile consulting firm looking to shift their image, he decided to take some speed, something he would resort to while writing exams in college. He wrote 180 pages in three days, which “went over really well,” he says.

Jonas began to feel unstoppable. Before staff meetings, Jonas remembers snorting a bump and instructing everyone to sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It gave him Herculean confidence and laser focus; he was regularly working 36-hour days. He even told his then-bosses about the secret to his productivity and they “didn’t have a problem with it.”

His habit took a turn for the worse when the bottom fell out of the dotcom world. Speed turned to crack, and Jonas’ retirement fund went up in smoke. Eventually, he went into recovery, moved to Europe, and turned his life around. “I don’t do it anymore,” he says, speaking of drugs.

Laurie Ruettimann, a human resources consultant based in North Carolina, says that when it comes to dealing with the issue of drugs in the workplace, each industry will approach it differently.

“A creative professional is going to be treated differently than someone working with food or a chemical processing facility,” she says. “There’s issues around public safety that goes into whether or not there’s drug testing or drug use policy.”

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In her time as a human resources professional, Ruettimann says she noticed a divide between who’s required to take drug tests and those who aren’t, an observation which parallels Hart’s theory on policy.

“People who work in lower income jobs are often more penalized for drug use than people who work in professional and corporate jobs,” she says, adding that it’s an issue about how much control you have in your career. “The people who are affected by drug policy are the people who are making $12 an hour. Generally someone who works for themselves aren’t subjected to the same kind of drug tests as someone who’s bussing tables at Applebee’s.”

But even a permissive boss and a creative workplace don’t mean that legal highs pan out. Just ask Mark Busse. He’s the founder and managing director of Industrial Brand, a brand strategy and marketing communications design consultancy that has offices in Chicago and Vancouver.

A few years ago, while stuck on a branding and design identity project, Busse suggested to his team that they get “bent” before a brainstorming session. They went outside to share a joint, then straight back to their desks to let their ideas flow. Busse admits there were short-term benefits—everyone was giggling and upbeat, the ideas were fluid, and any inhibitions fell away.

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“But in the end, it gets frustrating and weird,” he says. “It’s a diminishing-returns scenario. You waste your time thinking and your mind isn’t analyzing logically whatever your standard creative process is. You may have a moment of brilliance, surrounded by a bunch of scribbles.”

The creative director of the firm hadn’t taken well to the drug, either, and was convinced he had been poisoned. As a result, he spent two hours in the bathroom trying to make himself vomit.

“The experiment,” Busse says, “failed.”

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