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The Biden White House has asked several staffers who admitted to previously smoking marijuana to resign, and others to work remotely, in a move that was apparently a shock to many. According to the Daily Beast:
Dozens of young White House staffers have been suspended, asked to resign, or placed in a remote work program due to past marijuana use, frustrating staffers who were pleased by initial indications from the Biden administration that recreational use of cannabis would not be immediately disqualifying for would-be personnel, according to three people familiar with the situation.
The policy has even affected staffers whose marijuana use was exclusive to one of the 14 states—and the District of Columbia—where cannabis is legal. Sources familiar with the matter also said a number of young staffers were either put on probation or canned because they revealed past marijuana use in an official document they filled out as part of the lengthy background check for a position in the Biden White House.
In some cases, staffers were informally told by transition higher-ups ahead of formally joining the administration that they would likely overlook some past marijuana use, only to be asked later to resign.
The problem appears to stem from security clearance regulations that vary from agency to agency. The Daily Beast notes that to work in the FBI, an applicant can’t have any marijuana use in the last three years, and the NSA only requires one year. To allow more people with a history of smoking pot to join the team, the White House decided to waive the requirement of receiving “top secret” clearance to work in the Executive Office of the President for some candidates.
In response, White House spokespeople, including Press Secretary Jen Psaki, have indicated the current administration is much more permissive about past marijuana use than previous administrations. The number of staffers who are no longer employed is relatively small. They have not disclosed how many were denied jobs because of their disclosures.
As more state and local governments have decriminalized or even legalized marijuana, the number of potential employees using the drug has increased for all employers. Employers have handled this in different ways. Some have become stricter, especially where safety is a primary concern, and conduct pre-employment and random hair follicle testing. Others have become more permissive, aligning themselves with state and local law or abandoning drug testing altogether.
White House staff must submit to an FBI background check which includes interviews with family and friends. Before agents conduct the assessment, the candidates fill out a form. The most significant complaint is that the candidates were not told disclosing prior marijuana use could impact their employment. This information was probably not provided to encourage honesty. If the candidates is not up front and a relative or associate tells the FBI something different, there are potential legal penalties for lying to the agency.
I wonder what this means for the vice president. Kamala Harris famously talked about her love of smoking weed and listening to Tupac. That must have been much longer than three years ago, and Tupac hadn’t cut an album yet. Still, knowing what her honest answer about past drug use was would be interesting, considering how many pot smokers she sent to jail.
In reality, until federal and state laws align regarding marijuana use, the perceptions of how acceptable it is in terms of employment at the federal level will remain an issue. Federal law is supposed to set the minimum standard, so marijuana is still an illegal drug. State laws are only supposed to enhance, not contradict, federal law. It is not surprising that younger candidates may be surprised that there are regulations about recency of use if they come from states where it has been legalized. Living in Washington, D.C., they were asked to abstain while employed in the executive branch.
However, for those of us required to take a civics class to graduate high school, we know the executive is responsible for enforcing federal law, no matter how acceptable using marijuana has become at the state level.