Employers need to review their hiring policies if they want to beat the worker shortage afflicting the nation. The stereotype of the dopey stoner is on its way out. New research is suggesting that while cannabis users may be a liability in workplaces that utilize heavy machinery and vehicle operation, they may actually be valuable in jobs involving high-effort mental tasks or those requiring novel thinking.

According to the recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 60,000 jobs were open in New Mexico in November. That number represents a 50 percent increase in unfilled positions compared to 2020 and 6.8 percent of the total jobs that were available. That rate was slightly worse than the national average of 6.6 percent unfulfilled jobs. The pandemic hit the job sector hard as many people chose to retire or have turned to gig work instead of hiring out to companies.

As cannabis laws ease and concerns over finding candidates from a qualified workforce increase, employers are being faced with the tough decision of whether they should reform their cannabis policies.

Special Set of Skills

Employers in certain industries might find benefit in hiring cannabis users, as counterintuitive as that may seem. A new study slated to be published in the proceedings of the International Conference on Software Engineering found that over a third of surveyed programmers have used cannabis while working. Many of them believe that the drug has helped their performance.

Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed 803 software developers—450 of which were full-time programmers—in what they called the “first large-scale survey of cannabis use by programmers.” They found that 35 percent of participants had used cannabis while on the job and 73 percent of those had done so in the last year. Programmers who currently use cannabis while working at least once a month made up 18 percent of respondents.

When asked about motivational factors for cannabis use on the job, most participants cited enjoyment or the perception of enhanced coding skills. Few cited health benefits as the reason they used the drug while working.

“29 percent of developers had taken a drug test for a programming-related job,” tweeted lead author Madeline Endres, “showing at least some disconnect between the preferred practice of a subset of developers and industrial policies.”

Zoned Out?

Another recent study is turning stereotypes of the unmotivated pot user on their heads. According to the authors of a study that recently appeared in the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, when controlling for ADHD, distress tolerance, income and delay discounting, college students who used cannabis were more likely to choose “high effort” tasks compared to non-users. Researchers found a direct correlation between the number of days a student used cannabis in the last month and the likelihood of selecting a high-effort trial.

“The results provide preliminary evidence suggesting that college students who use cannabis are more likely to expend effort to obtain reward,” wrote the authors, “even after controlling for the magnitude of the reward and the probability of reward receipt. Thus, these results do not support the amotivational syndrome hypothesis.”

In other words: Cannabis users appear to actually be highly-motivated students, in spite of the common stereotypes.

Thinking Outside the Box

How does an employer know if hiring cannabis users is right for their business? As mentioned earlier, the first consideration should be whether employees will be operating heavy machinery or driving a vehicle. The next consideration should be what kind of employee they are looking to hire.

Last year a study out of Washington State University found that using cannabis could promote the kind of thinking needed for startups looking to break out in their particular industries. The paper was published in the Journal of Business Venturing and found that cannabis users produced more original ideas when brainstorming than non-users, but that those ideas were less feasible based on their experience in the industry being discussed.

The researchers notably did not administer cannabis to the participants and no one was under the influence when the study was conducted. The differences found between marijuana users and non-users apparently expressed themselves at baseline states. “Cannabis users are more impulsive, disinhibited, and better at identifying relationships among seemingly disparate concepts,” wrote the authors. “However, these differences and cannabis users’ diminished executive functioning likely detracts from idea feasibility.”

(Non)Dangers of Hiring Pot Users

Most employers outside of the programming world will be uncomfortable with the idea of allowing workers to use cannabis during work hours, but is it that troubling to hire those who use the drug when they aren’t on the clock?

According to yet another study published in 2020 in the journal Group & Organization Management, using cannabis before or during work negatively influenced task performance, reduced helpfulness to peers and promoted counterproductive work behaviors.

However, after-work cannabis use was not found to be correlated either positively or negatively to job performance in any way. Keeping a strict policy that disallows employees from coming to work while high should be more than enough to keep the workplace safe.

The only legitimate concern for an employer would be a loss of funds provided from federal grants that require companies to operate under a zero-tolerance drug policy. The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 requires any business or organization with an active federal grant of any kind to follow the National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance rules. If the business is receiving any federal grant funds, they have to test for federally illegal drugs regardless of local laws.

The question those businesses will have to ask themselves is whether those federal funds are really worth the pain of trying to find good help in a hiring desert.