It was the most expensive puff of marijuana smoke in history. The day after billionaire Elon Musk took a drag from Joe Rogan’s spliff while appearing on his podcast in California, two top executives resigned from Tesla and the company’s share price fell by nine percent (Vox, “Elon Musk’s week of pot smoking and wild emails, explained,” 09.08.2018). This is only the latest episode in Elon Musk’s saga of bad judgment and desperate need to appear cool, but it is illustrative of the transitional period in which the United States finds itself regarding marijuana usage.
Silicon Valley is far more tolerant, even encouraging, of drug use than other parts of the country. In 2016, WIRED published an article about how microdosing LSD was a trend among young professionals in tech who wanted to boost their creativity on the job (“Under pressure, Sil- icon Valley workers turn to LSD microdosing,” 08.24.2016). However, the negative reaction of investors to Elon Musk’s use of legal marijuana on camera shows that expectations for CEOs remain more conservative than the eccentricity of Silicon Valley might lead one to believe. Recreational use of marijuana is legal in California, but “respectable” people need to keep it behind closed doors.
While Elon Musk might be facing reproach from some investors and employees, his tremendous wealth and power still exempt him from dealing with any serious consequences. Musk, in his capacity as CEO of the aerospace company SpaceX, holds a high-level security clearance from the United States Air Force. SpaceX launches hardware into space for the U.S. Air
Force, so it’s essential for Musk to have access to confidential information. Neither the Air Force nor any other part of the federal government allows the use of marijuana for its members or those who hold security clearances. According to the rules, the U.S. government would have immediately stripped Elon Musk of his security clearance or had it suspended, and SpaceX would no longer have been able to do business with the Air Force unless it replaced him.
Nevertheless, the Air Force released the following statement to the press: “[I]t’s inaccurate that there is an investigation. We’ll need time to determine the facts and the appropriate process to handle the situation” (The Hill, “Air Force says it’s not investigating Elon Musk for smoking pot,” 09.08.2018). It is likely that if the Air Force has not taken action against Musk already, it’s because it has no desire to do so. Ending its relationship with someone so influential and wealthy would be too high a price to pay for following a dated policy on marijuana use. As always, even at the highest levels of government, there is a different rulebook for the wealthy. Elon Musk continues to have access to government secrets while millions of people, disproportionately people of color, are arrested simply for possessing marijuana (ACLU, “Marijuana Arrests By the Numbers”).
The disconnect between state and federal policies on marijuana has unnecessarily complicated hiring processes and restricted the labor pool for federal employment. Nearly 55 million adults use marijuana in the United States, but if you are a marijuana user who lives in one of the nine states where recreational marijuana is legal or the 30 states where medical marijuana is legal, employers will prevent you from seeking employment in the local branch of a federal agency like the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Agriculture or the Internal Revenue Services (The Washington Post, “11 charts that show marijuana has truly gone mainstream,” 04.19.2017). At least Elon Musk, to his credit, allows people who work at his factories to use marijuana outside of work as long as the THC does not exceed a certain limit in their bloodstream (The Hill, “Ex-Tesla employee who alleges she was fired for failing drug test: Musk smoking weed ‘like a slap in the face,’” 09.08.2018). By unnecessarily restricting the size of the applicant pool for federal jobs in many states, the government is undoubtedly turning away many talented and hardworking people who would like to commit to public service.
On a happy note, because of a shrinking labor pool due to high employment, companies in the private sector are increasingly dropping drug testing requirements to make up for the shortfall in applicants. As a March article in Bloomberg puts it, “pre-employment testing is no longer worth the expense in a society increasingly accepting of drug use” (“The Coming Decline of the Employment Drug Test,” 03.05.2018). Yet this trend has yet to carry over into the public sector, especially with anti-marijuana crusaders like Jeff Sessions in power.
Elon Musk may only have taken a single drag off of Joe Rogan’s spliff, but it was enough to bring all the present-day contradictions in the United States marijuana policies up to the sur- face. Legalization of marijuana at the state level is great, but America desperately needs legalization at the federal level in order to sort out these inconsistencies in employment prospects and accountability to the law.