Sarah* used to be a corporate lobbyist. While her 9-to-5 was spent in a serious political world, her evenings were full of coke and MDMA. ‘You’d never, ever talk about drugs at my old work,’ she says. ‘The people who went out and took drugs were definitely known and frowned upon. I probably thought I was doing a better job of hiding my drug use than I actually did.’
While Sarah says she never mentioned her big nights out in the office, she reckons her Facebook presence gave away a sense of what she was up to - and even her wardrobe. ‘The office was so corporate that wearing trainers and puffas to work was seen by senior management as a sign you were into the sesh,’ she explains. ‘Taking Mondays and Tuesday off probably didn’t help.’
Attitudes towards drugs are changing, especially amongst millennials. In the UK, the number of 16-24-year-olds who’d taken ecstasy in the past 12 months rose by 84% between 2013 and 2015 (even a police officer was recently caught taking it - they lost their job.) Anna Ross, who runs the Scottish Drug Policy Conversation Think Tank, told The Debrief earlier this year: ‘Now - from what I know - taking ecstasy, cocaine and cannabis appears to be quite normalised. It’s fairly normal for people to take class As along with alcohol at uni’.
With drug use seemingly now spread across a wider demographic, more of us than ever are facing going into the office with a comedown. Plus, thanks to social media, many of us know more about our work mates’ lives than ever. And, even if you’re not posting pictures of yourself gurning on Facebook, it’s pretty likely that - if your feed’s full of sesh memes and pictures of yourself at techno nights - someone might guess that you’ve not got conservative views on Class As. But, what are the politics of talking about what you snorted at the weekend over the water cooler? Should you say ‘yes’ when someone whips out coke at a staff party?
For Grace it’s complicated. She’s a 27-year-old financial advisor, who started at her company alongside a cohort of graduates on a training scheme. Amongst that group she made friends who she’s been on party-drug-fuelled holidays to Ibiza with, but says that she’d never talk about drugs at work. She describes how some junior guys got in trouble for passing coke around at a staff ball once, and says that if managers found out about her taking drugs there’d be damage to her reputation which might mean she was less likely to be promoted or put on project teams. She adds: ‘If it was something like a client seeing me do it and the client reported it I would probably lose my job... It did happen once but he was also on drugs.’
Grace has taken drugs with colleagues though, ‘I once ended up on a very drunken night out once with a couple of guys from the year below me,’ she says. ‘We decided to go to a club and one of them must have mentioned wanting to get some stuff as we made a detour to my flat to pick up then spent the night getting fucked together. It was a bit awkward at work after that though as we weren't really mates beforehand and we were so off our faces. It was like this one-off weird thing that was so far removed from reality. Plus questions on the Monday of "so what did you guys get up to when you left the bar?" were just a bit awkward.’
Grace admits that she’s had to take a couple of sick days off work after holidays and festivals to deal with comedowns. She explains she went to a five-day music festival just before one of her accountancy exams, travelling the 36 hours straight back into college from the festival without sleeping. ‘I got sent home by the tutors 3 days in a row because I was such a mess,’ she says. ‘There was definite judgement from some of my more sensible colleagues then.’
There are government guidelines for office drug policy - and they’re worth being aware of if you’re someone who likes a night out. They explain that employers could be charged with unfair dismissal for firing you for drug misuse without trying to help you with potential addiction problems. However, the guidelines also describe what drug abuse could look like in the office. They include: looking at your sickness record, whether there are dips in productivity and looking for behavioural changes including mood changes, confusion, fluctuations in energy, poor time-keeping and short-term absence. Essentially, even your most sheltered boss probably knows what a comedown looks like.
Of course, for every office where it’s imperative that you hide your drug-taking from senior staff, there’s one with a rampant drug culture. I work at a liberal media company where senior managers have told me trippy Glastonbury stories from back in the day. It’s meant I’ve both become increasingly comfortable talking about drugs, and that I’ve regularly taken them with workmates. That being said, lines have been crossed. Probably one of my lowest moments was being given the Mr Men book ‘Mr Bump’ from a manager as a birthday present after a party which was, let’s say, blurry. He meant it is a light-hearted joke, but I took it badly, realising that my behaviour might have damaged my reputation.
In some ways offices that do have a drug culture are trickier to navigate than those where drugs are a complete no-go. It would probably be much easier to take a comedown sick day in an office where no one knew you took drugs. Plus, the divide between people who do and don’t take drugs can help add to cliques in offices. It’s something Laura experienced when she had a junior role at one particular reputable fashion magazine. She found herself immersed in a culture where the senior fashion editors would offer coke to junior staff ‘like it was sweets’ and explains that while she never felt pressured into taking anything, there was a definite ‘no, he/she doesn’t do it’ vibe and an ‘inner circle thing’ if you did.
‘This senior fashion guy would pay for all of it. It was very generous but super weird,’ she says. ‘It did feel weird seeing them with their nose in a load of drugs and then having to treat them like your boss the next day.’ She explains that while drugs were never mentioned at work, there might have been some ‘how are YOU feeling today’ jokery in office hours. ‘You turned up at work on time the next day,’ she insists. ‘If you didn’t turn up they’d probably think it was very uncool. Sort of like ‘don’t do it if you can’t be professional too’.’
Laura says that joining in with taking cocaine made work parties fun because you knew you’d have a good night and it bonded you with your colleagues, however she admits it’s something she wouldn’t do now. ‘I would also say it’s a dumb and green thing to do,’ she says. It something I agree with. Having colleagues know that I take drugs has put a huge amount of pressure on my capability at work. I feel like it means that I’m constantly having to prove that my lifestyle’s not impacting on my productivity or mood. I’d quite like to be perceived as serious enough to promote at some point. Plus, ultimately working at a media company and taking loads of coke is an embarrassing cliche.
Sarah, the lobbyist, is now working in a much more liberal office too and is tackling the new challenges that come with it. She explains that nearly everyone there takes drugs, often together. Despite this, she’s still careful who she talks about drugs to and she’d never do drugs in front of really senior execs. Like Laura and I, she’s aware that if she’s sick on a Monday then everyone will just assume she’s had a big weekend.
For Sarah, ultimately what the politics of drugs in the office comes down to is that drugs just aren’t cool: cokey Christmas parties are a bit cringeworthy and desk chat about narcotics can just come across as try-hard. ‘I remember when I first started,’ she says. ‘One of my colleagues announced loudly that he had ‘coke flu’ and I just thought it was quite lame.’ That being said, she much prefers her current workplace to her last.
All names are fake because contributors, obviously, wanted to remain anonymous.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.