The Response To Elon Musk's Cannabis Use Shows That We Have A Giant Double Standard To Overcome

Last week, when Elon Musk appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience, he broke the internet when he took a single puff of cannabis at the two-hour-and-ten minute mark. In just under 15 seconds of a podcast that topped two-and-a-half hours, he seemingly did enough damage to cause Tesla’s stock to plummet nine percent, where it remained for the rest of the day.

Today, Tesla’s stock price has rebounded and is back to normal. But the fifteen seconds in which Musk accepted Rogan’s joint, studied it quizzically, took a single tentative puff, shrugged it off, and handed it back spawned a slew of headlines that persisted through the weekend.

“DealBook Briefing: Elon Musk Smoked Weed on Air,” crowed The New York Times.

“Analysis: Elon Musk is hurting Tesla with his bizarre behavior,” wrote CNN Money.

“Elon Musk seen smoking weed on podcast,” said CNBC.

FILE- In this June 24, 2018, file photo Tesla CEO and founder of the Boring Company Elon Musk speaks at a news conference in Chicago. Shares of electric car maker Tesla Inc. tumbled over 9 percent as the markets opened Friday, Sept. 7, after the CEO smoked marijuana during a YouTube video podcast and the company’s accounting chief left after a month on the job. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

While cannabis use has come more into the mainstream and become more normalized than ever before, the daylong selloff and the headlines that came from Musk’s appearance suggest that cannabis still has a long way to go before it can overcome the stigmas that have persisted around it for decades.

Never mind that cannabis – for both medical and recreational use – is legal in California, where the interview was taped. Never mind that Musk said he never smoked, or that he demonstrated the ability to continue holding a rational and thoughtful conversation until the interview’s conclusion. And never mind that he and Rogan were drinking whiskey the entire time without incident or note. That 15-second clip has been played on loop as evidence that Musk has lost credibility or, in the more extreme portrayals, has become unhinged.

I write this not to attack Elon Musk nor to be overly supportive of his behavior. To be sure, while it may seem unfair, a public company CEO has a duty to act at the highest levels of professionalism. As a CEO myself, I understand all too well the expectations that are required in public settings. But it seems wildly problematic, especially in 2018 with legalization on the rise across the country, that someone can be stereotyped as unhinged for consuming a small amount of cannabis.

This demonstrates more than perhaps anything else that a real and rampant double standard exists. If someone went on a show – whether Squawk Box or The Joe Rogan Experience – and had a glass of wine or beer (or whiskey, as was the case in this interview), it would rarely make headlines and would barely be considered news. But we cannot deny, especially not now, that this demonstrates marijuana is still controversial, even as it gains popularity and acceptance with mainstream audiences.

“You probably can’t because of stockholders, right?” Rogan asked, either as a challenge or a warning. “Do people get upset at you if you do certain things?”

“I mean, it’s legal, right?” Musk responded. And then, after a quick puff followed by a brief back and forth about alcohol, the pair moved on.

At the end of the day, Musk could have announced the most groundbreaking, visionary, world-transforming technology during his long conversation with Rogan. But that coverage would likely have still been totally eclipsed by this drama.

We have a long way to go. While it is relatively uncommon for a public company CEO to openly drink or smoke anything in a public interview or widely broadcast public forum, Musk’s appearance with Joe Rogan shows a stark contrast in how we think of cannabis and how we view those who use it. Cannabis is now legal for medical and/or recreational use in 31 states and the District of Columbia, and the market for cannabis and cannabis products is only poised to continue its dramatic growth.

That such a miniscule part of a wide-ranging interview is all that most will hear about or remember says everything about the current state of affairs and the stigmas that linger even despite rapid legalization efforts and successes. Sooner or later we are going to have to overcome the double standard that exists. The industry is transforming, and we must thus transform our attitudes along with it.