Sorry, Techies: Washington’s Pot Law Won’t Let You Toke Up at Work

At technology companies across the country, Friday often means plundering a fridge full of beer, maybe even tapping a keg. But now that Washington and Colorado have legalized recreational use of marijuana, does that mean tech workers will be able to toke up, too?

In Colorado, recreational pot smoking isn’t actually law. Voters approved the measure, but the state’s governor, John Hickenlooper, can take up to a month to sign it. He hasn’t, yet.

But it’s a different story in Washington state, where voters approved Initiative 502, which decriminalizes the use of marijuana. The law, which takes effect Thursday, proposes “to stop treating adult marijuana use as a crime and try a new approach” that allows law enforcement resources to be focused on violent crimes, and uses a licensed system to bring it under state control and generate tax revenue. Section 15 (3) details the amount of pot Washington adults can own: up to an ounce of marijuana; 16 ounces of solid, marijuana-infused product, like brownies; and 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquids, such as oil.

Within Washington, the question will affect workers at tech giants Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft and Nintendo, among others. And the answer is, fittingly, somewhat hazy. But probably not.

We attempted to reach representatives at all four tech companies, asking them how they plan to accommodate Initiative 502. Would employees be allowed to smoke their own pot they brought with them to work? And if so, would they be allowed to toke up in a designated smoking area? Finally, assuming that the companies in question bought alcohol for clients and employees, would they purchase marijuana for recreational use?

Only two responded: Microsoft and Boeing. And their answer is no, neither will allow marijuana on campus.

“The passage of marijuana decriminalization initiatives will have no effect on Boeing’s policies and approach,” a Boeing spokeswoman said in an email. “As a federal contractor, Boeing’s Drug Free Workplace policies are based on federal regulations which define marijuana as an illegal drug; therefore use of marijuana by Boeing employees is prohibited regardless of state law.”

And while Microsoft also won’t let employees knock off at 4:20, company founder Bill Gates reportedly used pot, according to Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry—and Made Himself the Richest Man in America, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews: “As for drugs – Gates was certainly not unusual there,” the two wrote. “Marijuana was the pharmaceutical of choice, but in [roommate Samuel] Znaimer’s words, ‘on a couple of well-planned isolated occasions we’d go off to the country and spend time contemplating the universe.’”

And we know other former Microsoft employees used pot, because one of them, Jamen Shively, wants to build the “Nieman Marcus of marijuana.” Shively told KVI Radio, “By creating the category of premium marijuana, we want to position it similar to a fine cognac, a fine brandy, a fine cigar – something to be savored and enjoyed in small quantities by responsible adults.” 

Washington: Smoke Up, But At Home

But there’s an issue for techie pot-heads. Washington’s new law also says: “It is unlawful to open a package containing marijuana, useable marijuana, or a marijuana-infused product, or consume marijuana, useable marijuana, or a marijuana infused product, in view of the general public.” the new law says.

In other words, smokers can toke up behind closed doors, but not in a park, right? Right.

We know this because of a rather amusing “Marijwhatnow?” FAQ put out by the Seattle Police Department, which has gone viral. In response to a question about where tokers can smoke, the P.D. responds: “Much like having an open container of alcohol in public, doing so [smoking pot in public] could result in a civil infraction—like a ticket—but not arrest. You can certainly use marijuana in the privacy of your own home.”

And that’s where it gets confusing. In Washington, for example, there is no other legal avenue to buy pot besides a licensed merchant – which, for now, is for medicinal purposes only. And just as medicinal marijuana laws have set up confrontations between state and federal officials, CNN has reported that the governors of both Colorado and Washington have petitioned the Justice Department for a ruling or at least guidance on how or if it will enforce federal pot bans.

For now, the state of Washington appears to be casting marijuana in the workplace as a safety issue.

Washington: Safe Workplaces Are Drug-Free

“It doesn’t really affect what we do,” said Renee Guillierie, public affairs manager for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, of the new law. “Our safety rules require employers to keep workplaces free of alcohol and drugs, and free of employees who are under the influence of alcohol and drugs. And the initiative does not change that.”

State law requires that a worker who is injured while on the job be compensated for his lost working hours, Guillierie said. If a worker under the influence of marijuana is injured, he or she could still claim benefits, because under state and federal law, being under the influence of marijuana is a misdemeanor, not a felony. The new law doesn’t change that.

“We don’t see that the new law, as it is written, requires employers to tolerate marijuana use by employees,” Guillierie said.

One labor lawyer concurred. Even if Washington law regards a joint as roughly equivalent to a drink, the final decision appears to be in the hands of the business.

“You would look at it how an employer already treats direct use,” said Erin Sweeney, an associate attorney at the Portland, Oregon, office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, a law firm specializing in labor and employment law. “Washington law decriminalizes the recreational use of marijuana. They also allow medicinal marijuana, but obviously it’s still illegal under federal law. Most employers have a zero-tolerance drug policy, and that policy would still apply to recreational use.”

Under Washington law, a worker who uses marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, is not protected from any adverse hiring, discipline or termination. “There is no requirement for an employer to accommodate medicinal marijuana use,” Sweeney said.

And could the State step in and protect pot use at the workplace? Guillierie, the state Department of Labor spokeswoman, said she didn’t know, as her agency didn’t regulate it. “I think there’s a lot of unknowns, just listening to the news reports,” she said.

Although a state that tolerates an ounce of – in the Seattle P.D.’s words – “Super Skunk” might seem to have additional appeal for some workers, Hope Chatfield, founder and executive recruiter for Scout Recruiting, which places technology workers in Washington, said she felt that the new law wouldn’t have any effect on bringing new workers to the area.

“If we have employers with specific policies for a drug-free workplace, we’ll of course follow all policies and procedures for our client,” Chatfield added, noting that federal contractors would have to be “in line” with federal law.

I smoke two joints in time of peace, and two in time of war

I smoke two joints before I smoke two joints, and then I smoke two more

–The Toyes, “Smoke Two Joints

Image source: Flickr/Shankbone and Flickr/mardigrass

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