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Is Marijuana Use a Violation of ASCE's Code of Ethics?

May 1, 2016


An engineering technician employed at an engineering and surveying firm sends a letter to ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct claiming that his supervisor, a licensed professional engineer and a member of ASCE, "has gone way beyond ASCE's published guidelines, standards of professional conduct, and code of ethics." Included in his letter is an extensive list of allegations, which the complainant believes demonstrate that his supervisor has breached each of ASCE's seven canons.

Included among the technician's complaints are accusations that the member abused his employer's resources by pirating office software for use on his home computer and by using the company car to run personal errands (thus violating canon 5), that he had failed to provide for his employees' welfare during an office renovation project by refusing to approve other working arrangements for staff members who were bothered by the dust and noise (thereby violating canon 1), and that he had recently "struggled" with an airport fencing project that was beyond his scope of expertise (in violation of canon 2). He also claims that the supervisor routinely "poked fun" at him with other staff members, and he supports this allegation with a copy of an email his supervisor had sent in which the supervisor had superimposed a picture of the technician's head on the body of a well-known Disney cartoon character.

Most of the complainant's letter, however, deals with the allegation that his supervisor is a recreational marijuana user and that he frequently smokes marijuana either during or immediately before his work hours. The technician states that on some mornings he had found his supervisor "quite intoxicated" from marijuana and that he had witnessed the supervisor smoking marijuana while riding in a company vehicle on a site visit. To buttress this claim, he produces a copy of a sentencing order dated just under two years earlier in which the supervisor had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense of possessing drug paraphernalia and had been sentenced to pay a small fine and serve a 90-day probation. The technician claims that this misdemeanor conviction had done nothing to curtail the supervisor's marijuana use and that the company's president was well aware of the issue but declined to take any action against the engineer.


Do the member's actions as detailed above violate ASCE's Code of Ethics?


The issue of marijuana use has been given unprecedented attention in recent years. While this complaint was submitted before the recent legislation that has legalized recreational marijuana use in a few states and various medical uses of marijuana in many others, it is clear that today's changing attitudes toward marijuana are complicating the legal, ethical, and practical ramifications of its use.

The role of ASCE's Code of Ethics is to govern an engineer's professional conduct, not his or her personal choices, but in practice it is not always a simple matter to draw a clear line between the two. Personal involvement in political fund-raising may be difficult to distinguish from improper professional solicitation of work, and such an instance of misconduct as personal income tax fraud may cast serious doubt on an engineer's professional integrity. What is the determining factor in deciding when personal conduct spills over into a matter of professional concern.

In the case of one who uses marijuana illegally, it may be tempting to argue that the illegality itself makes this an appropriate subject for ethical inquiry and that it is fair to question the professional character of any engineer who voluntarily engages in an activity known to be against the law. On the other hand, it can be argued that such a line would be both overinclusive and underinclusive. A single "experiment" might not be a strong indicator of an engineer's disregard for ethical principles in his or her professional life; conversely, an alcohol abuser who does not drive might be profoundly unfit to practice without violating any other law.

Instead of asking whether marijuana use is by definition a violation of ethical precepts governing the profession, a sounder approach might be to consider what circumstances would make marijuana use an ethical violation. Canon 4 tells us that engineers "shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees." If an engineer's use of a psychoactive substance prevents him or her from successfully fulfilling obligations to an employer or client, then such use would certainly represent a violation of canon 4. Moreover, canon 2 requires that engineers "perform services only in areas of their competence." While this is commonly understood as requiring that engineers must have the appropriate level of education and expertise for the engineering services they undertake, it is also true that if an engineer's use of a particular substance impairs his or her ability to apply scientific reasoning or to exercise sound engineering judgment, then any professional services rendered under such condition might be outside the engineer's "area of competence.

In fact, the same might be said of all ethical obligations. If the use of marijuana, alcohol, or any other substance undermines an engineer's ability to be truthful and objective, to demonstrate integrity in financial or business decisions, and to honor obligations to safeguard the welfare of the public, then clearly his or her conduct would fall short of the standards set by ASCE's Code of Ethics.

Even aside from the question of legality, it is fair to say that marijuana use represents a significant risk factor for ethical impropriety. In the case presented here, the members of the Committee on Professional Conduct felt that the engineer's use of marijuana during or immediately prior to work might indeed violate canons 2 and 4. At the same time, however, the committee members were troubled by the manner in which the complainant seemed to be asking the committee to intervene in the place of authorities better suited to establish the truth of his complaint, for example, the individual's employer, the state licensing board, and the local criminal justice system. In similar fashion, with regard to the individual's other complaints, the committee members were of the opinion that these complaints could best be adjudicated through the company's human resources department or state human rights agency.

Accordingly, the committee declined to take action on the case but advised the technician that he was welcome to resubmit the complaint once he could provide supporting evidence that such an investigation had occurred. It also notified the member of the substance of the complaint and informed him that it would revisit the issue if further documentation of the alleged conduct were to be presented.

It is noteworthy that the recent changes in the legality of marijuana in such states as Colorado and Washington have forced a number of other professional organizations to confront the ethical issues raised by marijuana use. In a 2012 ethics opinion, the Colorado Bar Association (a voluntary professional organization for Colorado attorneys) stated its position that while "every lawyer has a personal responsibility to ensure that the lawyer's physical condition or the substances the lawyer ingests or consumes do not adversely affect the lawyer's ability to follow the ethics rules...use of marijuana in compliance with Colorado law does not, in and of itself violate [these rules]." In 2014 the Colorado Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel concurred, but consistent with the analysis presented in this article, added that "of course, any attorney who uses marijuana lawfully under state law but violates other rules of professional conduct, such as those rules involving competence, diligence, adequate communication, conflict-free representation, or honesty, will be subject to discipline."

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE's hotline at (703) 295-6151 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6151. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.

© ASCE,  Civil Engineering , May 2016