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The Uncertain Future of Work-Enhancing Drugs

With the right chemical cocktail, it’s easier than ever to biohack your way to better job performance. But to many employers, your habit isn't an asset — it's a liability

Here in L.A., everyone I know is on something. I don’t mean drugs, I mean upgrades. We add wellness boosters to our cold-pressed juice. Brain boosters to our coffee. Fat-burning tonics to our water. IV-infused vitamin treatments and B-12 shots on our lunch break. CBD gummies for anxiety and stress.

Why? We’re burned out, distracted, stressed out, tired. The reason, of course, isn’t just modern life and the digital leash, but the tether the workplace often demands that we always stay plugged in. We’re on Slack and the internet all day, and the internet again all night, and texting in between. Sometimes, staring down a deadline, anxious or distracted, we need something to cut through the fog. Something to recharge.

It’s not that employers do nothing to assuage the burnout. We can take advantage of all those perks in the corporate wellness plan. Maybe pound some free caffeine from your company coffee bar or Coke machine. Hop on the treadmill during lunch, thanks to a fitness club discount. Eat a lunch of nutritious, energy-dense foods while sitting outside, soaking up the sun. Go for a walk. Cash in a few days from that generous unlimited vacation plan. Join your coworkers for a meditation or yoga session on that happy patch of grass out back.

But that might be hard if you have a packed schedule. Harder if you tend to get immersed in the work, and lose track of time. Harder if the 90 minutes falls in the middle of the meeting. Harder still if you’re just bad with time management.

So what if it were even easier than that? What if you could accomplish the same thing with a pill, or a microdose of mushrooms, LSD or CBD? What if you could skate past those limitations to work straight through not just 90 minutes, but, say, several hours, with laser focus, maximum performance and calm? And in some cases, a lower incident of bad decisions or mistakes?

And what if the best part of all this was that you’re still you. Just new and improved — a super-duper you. No one can even tell you’re on anything: All they see is you crushing it.

That promise has become the sales pitch of smart drugs, also called cognitive enhancers or nootropics, that have been winding their way through Silicon Valley and spreading out to the larger creative class. According to some reports, they’ve made their way to urban professionals like bankers and lawyers, the sort of people who are looking to “gain a competitive advantage over colleagues.” In a 2017 survey of some 80,000 people, 30 percent of Americans claimed to have tried smart drugs in the last 12 months in the search of that brain boost.

One of the most popular is modafinil (drug name: Provigil), a nootropic that users claim will insta-charge your brain for six to eight hours of solid go-time or “wakefulness,” and potentially more depending on the dosage. It’s praised for being non-addictive and conferring few side effects. Bulletproof Coffee founder and biohack guru Dave Asprey is a big proponent, and claims he took it every day for 10 years with no side effects. “This stuff gives you superhuman mental processing, with few to no downsides,” he wrote on his blog.

Originally designed for sleep apnea, shift-work sleep disorder and narcolepsy, it’s rumored to be the “entrepreneur’s drug of choice” for Silicon Valley bigwigs, who use it to blast through 20-hour days, chasing VC funding on no sleep. It’s even been tested for military helicopter pilots who need to buzz through the air for a sleep-free 88 hours.

There are others, ranging from Adderall (bad side effects, potentially addictive) to nicotine (it’s a very low dose to boost alertness, less than from smoking, but also addictive). Maybe you need a memory boost to better synthesize and recall information. In that case, try piracetam, a drug used to help Soviet astronauts manage space stress, but which helps Texas entrepreneur Mansal Denton be more articulate for his podcast. Or dose some creatine monohydrate, which bodybuilders have long used for muscle gains, but that you can swallow down for a leg up in intelligence, reasoning and memory.

Perhaps anxiety is your white whale, and you need to quell it fast for a big presentation or to make better sales calls. That’s what CBD is for, the ultimate chill pill derived from cannabinoid that eliminates the trippy part of the plant (THC) and leaves only the mellow, letting you “proceed to have a wonderful day.”

Or maybe you want a better overall mood, or to get off caffeine. Microdosing psychedelic mushrooms or LSD by reducing the quantity down to a 10th or 20th of the usual dose for a recreational trip, would only slightly alter your brain toward general wellbeing without any of the funny stuff. (Colorado recently voted to decriminalize them for personal possession and use, the first state in the country to so.)

But even if it certain drugs mentioned here seem like a high achiever’s drug of choice, the stuff of cramming for all-night exams at Ivy Leagues, Silicon Valley executives and biohack-obsessed entrepreneurs, it’s actually the lower-level workers — coding and other tech workers — who helped popularize a closer-to-average guy’s hack for a source of power to sustain focus and productivity throughout the day. “Tech workers seem to be all about ‘flow state’ and endurance or slow burn, but not competitive about it, which is where microdosing, nootropics and CBD come into play,” says a startup co-founder and consultant from the San Francisco Bay Area tech scene who asked not to be identified.

“Every tech person I know has a different solution for ‘flow state,’ which for many might just be daily coffee, caffeine pills or tea, CBD vapes or mild nootropics,” they continue. “I honestly don’t hear about many people doing anything very intense to get through the workday, unless you think of microdosing as intense. Probably the most intense thing I’ve ever personally witnessed is an entrepreneur who, in a somewhat manic state, skips multiple nights per week of sleep in order to write more emails and have more time to get more done.”

My source makes it clear that people aren’t openly chopping up shrooms in the office before kicking off a day of coding, but that it’s well understood that these substances are being used privately, and it’s understood “to not negatively impact your work performance.” They’ve seen a tech worker carrying around a giant bottle of nootropics only once out in the open, but, they note, “it turned out he wasn’t a very focused worker.”

“It’s understood by nearly everyone in the Valley that so many people have experimented with something at some recent point in their lives that drug-testing the tech scene would be a disaster,” they add.

That something extends to harder stuff, just not during the daytime when actually working, meaning coding or collaborating with employees. It’s widespread to use social drugs while “making deals or speaking with other VCs and entrepreneurs,” they say, scenes where “drug use is rampant, and where the lines between socializing and work are blurred.”

Also blurred is the sense of whether substances that take the edge off — or sharpen it — will ever be officially tolerated or even encouraged by employers themselves. That question was asked in 2016 by Carl Cederstrom, a professor of organization theory at Stockholm University, who announced soberly in an examination for the Harvard Business Review of the smart drug landscape: Like it or not, smart drugs are coming to the office. “Meanwhile,” Cederstrom wrote, “the world of management remains stunningly silent. But sooner or later, executives will have to confront the issue of these drugs.”

For now, they may have their reasons. There’s debate over whether the drugs really work, or at what long-term cost. Cederstrom cites a body of research from Harvard and Oxford that shows some of these smart drugs, such as modafinil, appear to be the real deal, and have been tested on surgeons and pilots and proven to increase better decision making and focus. Conversely, while CBD products have exploded into the mainstream marketplace — with far-reaching claims that they can help quit smoking, treat seizures, quell anxiety, control appetites, and so forth — they’re still being reviewed, scrutinized, and more testing is needed to truly verify all of those promises.

All the same: “I can’t foresee that a bona fide corporate wellness plan would be doing anything like this,” says Ron Goetzel, the director at Johns Hopkins Institute for Health and Productivity Studies, who analyzes successful corporate wellness initiatives. “Those programs are primarily focused on mainstream ideas like healthy eating, physical activity, medication and going to the doctor with preventive screening guidelines. I would think employers would steer clear of anything that hasn’t been proven.”

Cederstrom agrees that exploring drugs as part of a holistic approach to employee wellness still seems far off. “Sure, today it seems unlikely that companies could mandate drug use,” he wrote. “But then again, if companies can penalize people with poor health, why couldn’t these companies, at least in theory, incentivize the use of drugs if it’s safe and it makes the firm more productive and profitable?”

Well, mostly because they don’t have to.

“Most American employees are at-will, which means you can exit your job any time you want for any reason, and your employer can tell you to leave any time they want for any reason, as long as it’s not prohibited by a statute or other provision,” explains Rahool Patel, an associate at the law firm Ansell, Grimm & Aaron in New Jersey, whose practice focuses on commercial litigation, employment and labor law and cannabis law. “If you don’t smile the way the employee wants you to smile, that’s grounds to terminate you.”

And secondly, because some of this stuff is illegal.

“Generally speaking, if a drug is illegal, a controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act, or illegal under state law, which means generally it’s illegal altogether, your employer can terminate you if you’re taking advantage of it,” Patel says. “Whether it’s in the workplace or outside the workplace, if they have a drug testing policy and it comes back positive for a controlled substance, they can terminate.”

There are some caveats with prescription drugs, he notes. But it gets tricky with marijuana and CBD products, even medicinal marijuana. Laws vary by state, but it’s still illegal federally — a schedule 1 drug, which means as far as the government is concerned, it may as well be cocaine or heroin. “Even if the use of medicinal marijuana is allowed in a particular state, that doesn’t mean an employer can’t terminate you,” Patel explains. That’s because the employer has a right to set pretty much whatever policies they like.

CBD should technically be federally legal thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill that took hemp products off the bad list for addictive drugs with no medical use. Still, that doesn’t matter much if your employer doesn’t want you using CBD products on the job. Basically, they can still fire you because it’s their policy, which you agreed to follow as a term of employment.

What’s interesting about the space we’re straddling right now is that many employers don’t even realize how many workers are using this stuff, and they don’t find out until a drug test shows up confirming not CBD, but THC. The reason? Theoretically, due to the fact that CBD isn’t regulated, it’s unclear how much THC is really in many CBD products. One study by the University of Pennsylvania found that 70 percent of CBD products are mislabeled, meaning you could get nowhere near enough CBD in something to even have the therapeutic benefit you’re looking for, or get too much and inadvertently experience reactions that could impair driving or drug testing.

That’s how you end up with Rose Maexy, a 61-year-old Indianapolis woman who failed a drug test for a temp job because it turned up THC in her system, when she’d been using CBD products happily for nerve pain in her lower back.

That’s how you end up with a Reno, Nevada, man named J.C., who also failed a drug test for a video editing job when THC turned up, but he claimed he’d only been using CBD oil for anxiety and sleep, Consumer Reports reported. They also turned up a number of other instances of workers who had been fired or never offered jobs purely on the merits of a drug test. A truck driver in New York. A woman in Pennsylvania and California who lost jobs and who have joined a lawsuit against a CBD manufacturer who sold them products claiming they didn’t contain a smidge of THC, but who found out the hard way they did.

Or rather, that their urine contained a compound that comes from metabolized THC, which a Quest Diagnostics official told Consumer Reports simply doesn’t happen with true CBD, implying that the most likely story is that CBD products may contain enough THC — maybe as much as 5 percent — to flunk a urine test. It’s still unclear whether it’s a mislabeling problem, or a problem with how THC is measured in hemp or extracted. Or if it’s just the way THC, even in small doses, builds up in our bodies and remains in our fat.

Currently, New York has a ban on testing applicants for marijuana starting in 2020, but experts told Consumer Reports half of all employers still do, and federal employees, particularly those who operate vehicles, are still on the hook for testing.

Patel says that in New Jersey, where he practices, there’s a Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act regarding medicinal marijuana that protects users, even though it’s not legal in the state. But that doesn’t change the fact that your employer doesn’t have to tolerate it on the job. And because marijuana is illegal on the federal level, it wouldn’t make the cut for protection under the American Disabilities Act, which has an exemption for illegal drugs.

Then, there’s just the issue of employer risk, whether we’re talking about popping a few CBD gummies, taking marijuana in any form, microdosing shrooms or downing modafinil without a prescription.

“Imagine this from the employer point of view,” Patel explains. “You have an employee taking something they think is harmless to boost performance, but for the employer, it poses all sorts of concerns. What happens if that employee becomes aggressive or does something illegal or inappropriate, or gets in a car because their work involves transportation, but they’re not necessarily a commercial driver, which is more heavily regulated. They get into a car accident, and it comes back that they had something in their system that impaired them, and now the employer is on the hook, getting hit with a court case by the person injured.”

This leaves the exhausted, burned-out worker in an untenable situation: The need to biohack their way to better performance, which theoretically benefits the very company whose workload demands a salve of some kind. Only, with it it comes the risk of losing the job for that very company you’re (theoretically) overproducing for. “If you’re going to do something that’s contrary to the law and the workplace handbook, you’re proceeding at your own risk,” Patel says. “The employer has a right to fire you, especially if it’s illegal. But even if isn’t, they can prohibit it. There’s no basis for you to declare discrimination, and you’d have to go to court.”

That takes time, is expensive and comes with no guarantee of vindication. “I wouldn’t take the risk,” he warns.

But given that so many states have begun legalizing various forms of marijuana for various purposes, Patel thinks it’s inevitable that the laws will eventually catch up, and points to broad support among disparate actors from Rand Paul to Elizabeth Warren for the STATES Act, which will effectively remove the federal prohibition of marijuana and leave the rest of the decision-making to the states.

Tom Spiggle, an employment attorney in Virginia whose firm, the Spiggle Law Firm, handles wrongful employment practices, notes that a few states have begun offering medical marijuana protections under state disability laws, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, for instance, which is a sign we’re heading in the right direction. “Right now though, it’s the Wild West,” Spiggle says. But the Wild West goes both ways, letting employees get away with things their employers might not have wised up to. And employers could look the other way about smart drugs if they wanted.

“A workplace could, if it’s forward-thinking, allow you to microdose,” Spiggle says. “There’s nothing preventing them from doing that. The employer can have any policy at work within reason. If they want to allow microdosing because they think it’s a performance enhancer, they can.”

But, he adds, the fact that they’re averse to it is a bit funny. “The irony of course is people are already swilling coffee all day,” he said. “And caffeine is a powerful drug.”

If only it were just a little bit smarter.