Career Development in the Age of Legal Marijuana: Issues, Trends, and Solutions
By Christopher Pisarik and Rachel Schleier
The legal, public policy, and attitudinal landscapes of marijuana use in the United States have undergone seismic shifts during the last two decades. As of this writing, sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, and a total of thirty-six states have legalized it for medical purposes (Rense, 2021). Sixty-eight percent of U.S. residents support full legalization of marijuana (Brenan, 2020), and daily use of marijuana among college-aged adults is at historic levels (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019). Given these changes, it is essential for career development practitioners to consider how marijuana use may have an impact on the career development process.
Recent research examining the effects of marijuana sheds light on how use may affect individuals’ career development, motivation, and decision-making. Highlights of these findings, along with key workplace trends and suggested strategies for practitioners follow.
Marijuana and Career Development
Among all the stages of the career/lifespan, the emergence into adulthood is a particularly meaningful period given the psychosocial changes that occur and the foundational career tasks at hand (Arnett, 2005). Kelly and Vuolo (2018) examined role transitions marking the emergence to adulthood in a large national sample. The findings indicate that those participants who abstained from marijuana use or dabbled during emerging adulthood were significantly more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree, secure full-time employment, and earn up to 16% higher wages than those individuals who used marijuana consistently at moderate to heavy use from 16 to 28 years of age. These findings build on previous research suggesting that marijuana use adversely affects academic performance, as well as educational and occupational attainment (Arria, et al., 2015; Fleming, et al., 2012).
Marijuana and Motivation
Career development is essentially a motivational process that requires initiative and action to realize goals. Research over the past several decades has not definitively determined marijuana use’s effects on motivation. However, Lac and Luk (2018) examined a racially diverse sample of 505 undergraduate students and found that marijuana use predicted lower levels of initiative, effort, and task persistence after accounting for race, personality type, self-efficacy, and other substance use. These results remained unchanged after a one-month follow-up.
Marijuana and Decision-Making
Career choice and transition essentially depend upon one’s ability to attend to goals, anticipate consequences, and make decisions. Research suggests that marijuana use impairs cognitive functions such as attention, executive function, problem-solving, planning, and decision-making (Crean et al., 2011). While such impairment to attention and information processing may subside after a month of abstinence, impairment to decision-making may be long term for adolescent heavy users. A plethora of factors can impact cannabis-related impairment and recovery of executive functions, however, including age of onset of smoking cannabis, years of use, and amount of regular use (Grant et al., 2003).
Marijuana and Workplace Trends
Marijuana is currently illegal under federal law, so many employers opt for a zero-tolerance policy. However, medical marijuana use complicates workplace policies, as some states protect medical marijuana usage. While drug testing and no tolerance policies may be enforced, disciplining employees for marijuana use may be discriminatory practice under state laws. Additionally, disciplining “off the clock,” legal, recreational marijuana use can be detrimental to workplace morale (Freedman, 2020), and some states actually prohibit employers from disciplining employees for off-duty use. Yet, according to the National Safety Council (n.d.), employees who test positive for marijuana compared to those that test negative:
- are 85% more likely to experience an injury at work
- have 75% greater absenteeism
- have more worker compensation and unemployment compensation claims
and have higher turnover.
Career development professionals and their clients need to be dedicated in their efforts to stay informed about rapidly changing legalities, liabilities, and acceptable standards related to marijuana use and working life.
Considerations for Practitioners
Section C of the NCDA code of ethics (NCDA 2015) calls upon career development practitioners to gain knowledge of current issues through continuing education and professional involvement. Inconsistent and equivocal research findings regarding the impact of marijuana use can be confusing, so it is incumbent upon career practitioners to acquire and maintain knowledge and competency to help clients navigate these complex issues. There are many reliable knowledge outlets to draw upon to stay informed. For example, NAADAC (National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors) and SAMHSA (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration) provide accessible, updated literature, data, and resources regarding the effects of drug use and policy around substance use in the workplace. NECA (National Employment Counseling Association) also offers resources for employers, employees, and career counselors and coaches.
Assessments are additional tools to help practitioners and clients understand if marijuana use is an impediment to their career development process and mental health. Assessment can be formal (e.g., administration of standardized tests), as well as informal. For example, career practitioners might:
- assess clients’ cannabis use upon initial intake with questions on an intake form, specifically seeking information regarding use-related problems
- listen intently for indications of issues with marijuana during discussions of concerns and barriers related to career goals
- watch for marijuana use as a factor that emerges when using facilitated narrative techniques such as life-lines, career autobiographies, career construction interviews, and career genograms.
The NCDA code of ethics (2015) states that career professionals must practice within the boundaries of their competence. Therefore, a referral to a mental health professional with substance use counseling experience and competency in substance use disorder assessments may be warranted.
Given the rapid change in marijuana laws and practices, career practitioners, job seekers, and clients in career transition need to stay informed about workplace policies and regulations regarding marijuana use at work and understand the potential implications of use on career development.
Arnett, J. J. (2005). The developmental context of substance use in emerging adulthood. Journal of Drug Issues, 35, 235-253.
Arria, A. M., Caldeira, K. M., Bugbee, B. A., Vincent, K. B., O’Grady, K. E. (2015). The academic consequences of marijuana use during college. Psychological Addiction Behavior, 29(3), 564-575. https://doi.org/10.1037/adb0000108
Brenan, M. (2020, November 9). Support for legal marijuana inches up to new high of 68%. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/323582/support-legal-marijuana-inches-new-high.aspx
Crean, R. D., Crane, N. A., & Mason, B. J. (2011). An evidence based review of acute and long-term effects of cannabis use on executive cognitive functions. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.1097/ADM.0b013e31820c23fa
Fleming, C. B., White, H. R., Haggerty, K. P., Abbott, R. D., & Catalano, R. F. (2012). Educational paths and substance use from adolescence into early adulthood. Journal of Drug Issues, 42(2), 104-126. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022042612446590
Freedman, M. (2020, June 10). Cannabis at work: How employers are reacting to the legalization of marijuana. Business News Daily. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/9386-legal-marijuana-employment-practices.html
Grant, I., Gonzalez, R., Carey, C. L., Natarijan, L., & Wolfson, T. (2003). Non-acute (residual) neurocognitive effects of cannabis use: A meta-analytic study. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 9, 679-689.
Kelly, B. C., & Vuolo, M. (2018). Trajectories of marijuana use and transition to adulthood. Social Science Research, 73, 175-188. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2018.03.006
Lac, A., & Luk, J. W. (2018). Testing the amotivational syndrome: Marijuana use longitudinally predicts lower self-efficacy even after controlling for demographics, personality, and alcohol and cigarette use. Prevention Science, 19(2), 117-126. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11121-017-0811-3
National Career Development Association (2015). 2015 NCDA code of ethics. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/asset_manager/get_file/3395?ver=738700
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, September13). Marijuana use at historic highs among college-age adults [News Release]. https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/news-releases/2019/09/marijuana-use-at-historic-highs-among-college-age-adults
National Safety Council. (n.d.). Marijuana at work: What employers need to know. https://www.nsc.org/membership/training-tools/best-practices/marijuana-at-work
Rense, S. (2021, March 31). Here are all the states that have legalized weed in the U.S. Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a21719186/all-states-that-legalized-weed-in-us/
Christopher Pisarik, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of North Georgia. His teaching and research interests focus on career counseling and the intersection of career and mental health. Chris is also a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Professional Counselor Supervisor in the state of Georgia, where he maintains a small private practice. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rachel Schleier, a Master’s level counseling clinician, is a recent graduate from the University of North Georgia. She is awaiting board approval to practice as an LAPC and is working toward full licensure. Her professional interests are focused on holistic counseling with families, including family, couples, and individual counseling. She can be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.