Even though marijuana is now legal in four states and the nation's capital, and medical marijuana is legal in 23 states, being a pot smoker is still enough to get a worker fired in lots of places. It's different if the big boss is a pot smoker. No one is going to fire him or her except the board of directors, and these days, it really doesn't seem like pot-smoking CEOs have that much to worry about.
Some business leaders have long advocated for marijuana law reform, including Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and Whole Foods founder John Mackey, both of whom have called for outright legalization. The Virgin Group's Sir Richard Branson is so enthused that he says “would invest” in the marijuana industry if he could do so legally.
Some don't just talk the talk about marijuana legalization, they walk the walk. The recently departed John Sperling of the for-profit University of Phoenix, backed California's groundbreaking 1996 Prop 215 medical marijuana initiative to the tune of $200,000, and he was back four years later along with financier George Soros and others to kick in $3.7 million to support Prop 36, which helped to reverse California's prison overcrowding by diverting non-violent drug offenders to treatment.
Also recently departed, Peter Lewis, long-time CEO of Progressive Insurance, was the single biggest individual donor to marijuana and drug reform efforts, kicking in an estimated $40 million since the 1980s, including $3 million to support legalization efforts in places like Washington state in 2012. Lewis has left us, but a new generation of businessmen are stepping up. Facebook cofounders Sean Parker and Dustin Moskovitz contributed $170,000 between them to the barely failed 2010 California Prop 19 legalization initiative, and Weedmaps founder Justin Hartfield has already put $2 million into a fund to legalize weed in California next year.
Advocating marijuana legalization or backing it with financial support is one thing—it is advocacy of a political position on a pressing social issue—but being an actual out-and-out pot smoker is another. But it really doesn't seem to matter. Here are seven pot smoking CEOs that nobody has gotten around to firing:
- Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg is the founder, CEO, and owner of Bloomberg L.P., the financial software, data, and media giant. As three-term mayor of New York City, he presided over tens of thousands of small-time pot busts, despite having famously answered a question about smoking pot with: "You bet I did, and I enjoyed it." NORML used those remarks as the basis for a full-page ad in the New York Times and ads on city buses, prompting Bloomberg to say he regretted those remarks, and that he was "a believer that we should enforce the laws, and I do not think that decriminalizing marijuana is a good idea."
- Richard Branson. The afore-mentioned Branson not only wants to invest in marijuana, he says he smokes it with his adult son. In a 2007 interview with GQ, he told Piers Morgan as much, saying father and son had lit up during an Australian beach vacation. In that same interview, Branson revealed that he had learned the art of joint-rolling from none other than Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who should know how it's done.
- Hugh Hefner. The Playboy magazine founder and octogenarian serial monogamist deserves kudos for being the first businessman to get behind pot legalization, donating $5,000 to help found NORML in 1970. Hef is still sticking to that position: “I don’t think there’s any question that marijuana should be legalized because to not legalize it, we’re paying the same price we paid for prohibition,” he said in 2010. But it wasn't just politics; Hefner liked what pot did for him: “Smoking helped put me in touch with the realm of the senses,” he told Patrick Anderson, author of "High in America." “I discovered a whole other dimension to sex.”
- Mark Johnson. Johnson may not be as well-known as some other names on this list, but he is the CEO and founder of Descartes Labs, a New Mexico-based tech company, and before that, he was CEO of Zite, a Silicon Valley personalized news streaming company. Back in his Zite days, he told Bloomberg News he was a full-on stoner, toking up day in and day out, and that so many other tech workers were, too, that it was not an issue. “People just don’t care,” Johnson said. "If you do, you don’t need to hide it; and if you don’t, you accept that there are people around you that do.” He also defended marijuana users' productivity: “Pot is an extremely functional drug,” he said. “Coders can code on it, writers can write on it.”
- Peter Lewis. Lewis was CEO of Progressive Insurance from the 1960s to his retirement in 2000, and served as chairman until his death in 2013. He was also "a functioning pot head" who used weed for both fun and relief from chronic pain from a leg amputation in 1998.
- John Sperling. The University of Phoenix CEO died last year at age 93, but not before publicly acknowledging that he smoked marijuana manage the side effects of the treatment he received for prostate cancer. He, Lewis, and George Soros were the original troika of deep-pocketed marijuana reform businessmen; now only Soros is left, although Lewis's estate continues to invest in legalization efforts.
- Oprah Winfrey. The iconic Oprah isn't on TV anymore, but she' worth $3 billion and she's still the chairwoman and CEO of both Harpo Productions and the Oprah Winfrey Network, where she's also CCO. She has never staked out a position on marijuana legalization, but she has twice said she smoked it, although not for a long time. She told "Watch What Happens: Live" in 2013 that she had last smoked in 1982, and she told "The Late Show With David Letterman" earlier this year that she hadn't "smoked weed in 30 years."
- George Zimmer. The founder and recently ousted CEO of Men's Wearhouse is an unabashed pot smoker, as well as a financial backer of legalization efforts. Just a couple of weeks ago he told CNBC that he’s “been smoking marijuana on a regular basis for about 50 years.” And he's not take it easy after his 2013 firing, either: He has since gone on to create online tuxedo rental and tailoring companies.