The FBI, Online Brokerages, And The Hiring Of ‘Potheads’

This almost-two-years-old story about the FBI’s claim that it could not find hackers–AKA ‘cybersecurity experts’–to hire because they smoke marijuana (and thus would fail their pre-employment drug tests) reminds me of a story from the days of the Internet gold rush, as demand for programmers, system administrators, and the like meant the instant hiring and satisfaction of salary requests with little regard for the background of the applicant other than their technical credentials.

The background to this story, as described in a previous post, is as follows:

As the summer of 1997 ended, I found myself, within the confines of New York City, a nomad. A break-up with my girlfriend meant I had to find new accommodations, and it had resulted in my moving thrice in three months. Finally I settled on the Lower East Side, renting a room in an apartment still under construction. I was broke; the moving had cost me; I had lost apartment deposits and spent too much money eating out, drinking beer, whiling away my time in bars playing pool. My meager summer employment hadn’t kept pace with my reckless expenditures and I found myself skimping, saving, borrowing money from friends, just to get by and pay rent. Even more problematically, my doctoral oral examinations awaited; I had an ambitious reading list–in philosophy of language, logic, and science–to get through.

As the fall semester began, I found myself caught, willy-nilly, in a form of monastic discipline. I had wasted enough time over the summer; I had to buckle down now. I had two section of Introductory Philosophy to teach, a long list of journal articles to get through, and very little money to spend. So I did what all abstainers do: I enforced a routine. I tried to wake up at the same time everyday, avoided my old haunts, and kept my nose to the wheel.

Well, it worked. I passed my oral exams (I was told I had earned ‘a distinction.’) But I was still broke. I needed work, and would have to take a semester–the coming spring of 1998–off from graduate school. So, I typed up a CV, detailed my previous experience as a C programmer and a UNIX system administrator, and faxed it to a dozen or so head-hunters in New York City. By the end of the day, I had received several call-backs. The next morning, I spoke to one of the agencies, and was directed to an interview with an online brokerage for the position of a UNIX system administrator (to take care of their battery of SUN servers that powered their website.) I interviewed, made my salary demands known, and waited for a call. It soon came, informing me I was hired. But I had to take a drug test first.

I had smoked pot several times over the past summer, but from September onward, I had abstained. You see, folks who smoke marijuana can make reasoned decisions about whether they think indulgence in it may interfere with personal and professional projects of importance. I wanted to concentrate on my teaching and exam preparation; simple abstinence seemed like a good way to facilitate that process.  And now, it seemed my abstinence would also help me pass the drug test my employer wanted me to undertake.

There was one problem though: the drug test was not the usual ‘piss-in-a-bottle’ test; instead it tested hair samples. I found this out on the day I went for the test. Surprised at not being handed a bottle, I dutifully raised my arms for clippings to be taken from my armpits. This did not bode well, for I had learned that traces of marijuana can be found in hair samples for months longer than in urine samples.  A day later, I received a phone call from the Human Resources Department. The conversation went as follows:

Administrative Lady: Mr. Chopra, we want to let you know that you tested positive for marijuana in your drug test.

Me: Oh, really?

Administrative Lady: We would like you to know that at XXX, we have a drug-free workplace.

Me: Uh-huh

Administrative Lady: Can you please come in as soon as possible to fill out your remaining forms?

Me: Sure.

And that was it. I had failed the drug test, but I was still hired. I was a UNIX system administrator; I ‘knew’ Solaris; I was in a possession of a ‘rare’ skill. What were they going to do? Go find another system administrator, back into the madness of trying to find someone qualified, in competition with other brokerages and Wall Street employers? Fat chance. I was in.

Six months later, I quit. I had saved enough money to float my graduate school boat for a while. And I continued to abstain from pot till the day I defended my doctoral thesis, on January 6, 2000. Then, I celebrated.

Falling Off the Wagon

I had a bad week. Starting Friday April 18th, my brain went on the blink. In the following nine days, I only blogged twice (instead of my usual daily schedule), went to the gym only three times (instead of my scheduled seven times), read no books, and only entered into minor bouts of editing. I had thought I would take a small one-day break from my regular schedules, but it became much bigger. I was ‘unproductive’ in all the ways you can imagine; I did not take care of body or mind; I let them come asunder. This was a falling off the wagon, a derailment, a stumble and fall on a slippery peel I placed out for myself.

Today, I’m back in the library, my hands are back on a keyboard, the book I began reading more than ten days ago is in my backpack, waiting to be finished. (I returned to Albert Einstein‘s Ideas and Opinions on the train ride into Manhattan today.) I will go to the gym again today evening–my workout clothes, like that unread book, are in my backpack too–and attempt to resume my progress on the bench press. And after a week of eating enough sugar to induce coma in a small army of toddlers, I am back to trying to eat healthy again. (Broccoli and sausages in a lunchbox in, you guessed it, my backpack.)

Over the past nine days, as I stumbled about, desperately conscious I was not on the straight or narrow, and neither sinner nor saint for being so, I thought about the metaphors that came to mind to describe my ‘fall’ and wondered how it had come to be. I had let myself get too tightly wound, I had become too anxious, I had not blown steam off; when release had presented itself, I had seized the opportunity. I found relief of a sort, but it came accompanied by anxiety and so was not terribly palliative in the end. Strangely enough, I had to return to the scene of my trials, to come full circle, before I could begin to find redressal from my newly acquired affliction.

If all goes well, over the next few days, I will experience a familiar sensation: the easy euphoria produced by making up easily made up (and lost) ground. And then, I will find myself in a familiar space, where progress slows, frustration builds, and the temptation to lose a wheel or two will become stronger than ever. This kind of work, this returning again to the written word, to pages in paper and electronic form, can and will do that to you. (Because a book manuscript completion and submission is at hand, I dread a familiar nausea that awaits me over the next few weeks.) Perhaps, then, I will return and read this post as fair warning of the misery that awaits me were I to succumb to the temptation to take another ‘break.’

Prohibitionists and Their Impoverished Sense of Human Motivation

A few days ago, I wrote a post here on David Brooks’ inane ‘Weed: Been There, Done That‘ Op-Ed. Looking back on it now, what strikes me as most galling about Brooks’ post and other pro-prohibition sentiments that I’ve heard expressed in the past is the shriveled, impoverished, reductive view they have of human character. Their advocacy of prohibition reveals no concern for their fellow humans; it merely highlights their narrowly conceived view of them.

To wit, the (extreme) prohibitionist seems to believe that once someone, any one, is exposed to an intoxicant, a pleasurable one, perhaps offering some palliative relief from daily routine, or diversion, or entertainment, the consumption of that intoxicant will immediately be placed atop their hierarchy of desires. From then on, the user, now an addict, will divert his time, energy, and monetary resources to the pursuit of the intoxicant. Nothing else may compete with its allure.

This–possibly caricatured–description of prohibitionist sentiment highlights its most salient assumption: that pursuit of intoxicatory pleasures will override other goals entertained by the human agent, even if the price to be paid is ill-health or financial ruin.

I hope this sounds ludicrous to you. For humans have many desires that compete for their attention; these are satisfied depending on their standing in our scheme of values, our capacities, and our stations in life. Many are the pleasures we decline because we feel that some competing goal of ours will be compromised. Some of us, admittedly, are unable to adjudicate thus between competing desires and fall prey to a possibly pernicious indulgence repeatedly; but when these compulsions become pathological, we rightly suggest that such folks seek treatment for behavior that appears to self-destructive.

This point is broader, of course. We are all assumed hedonists by the prohibitionist: any experience deemed pleasurable by us will always be pursued by everyone no matter what its cost. Our tastes are alike; our dislikes and likes are alike.

But all too often, we find that experiences found pleasurable by others are not so for us. Many of my friends love scuba diving. I have been assured it’s an otherworldly experience, taking its exponent into a magical realm beneath the waves. I’m sure that’s the case. But I tried it, and I didn’t like it. I felt no desire to pursue that experience; knowing myself and my capacity to panic at inopportune moments, I reckoned I stood a good chance of hurting myself, and hurting others too, if I continued. So, after one dive down to the Great Barrier Reef, I gave it up. There are many other things I’d rather do on my vacations (hiking well above sea level, for instance!) I might have compromised other goals of mine if I had continued to pursue scuba diving. So, to reiterate, I didn’t do it any more. Or there are those, for instance, like mountaineers or F1 drivers, who pursue their pleasures and then give them up because the risks of their pursuits has become too visible and they feel their lives with their families threatened.

These examples can be multiplied endlessly.

The understanding of human beings as being constantly and relentlessly afflicted by a form of what the ancient Greeks termed akrasia, and thus not worth being granted the freedom to live their lives according to their own, autonomously-arrived-at scale of values, is prohibition’s central incoherence.