The administration of United States President Joe Biden stated on Friday, March 19th, 2021, that it had terminated the employment of five White House staffers over cannabis use.
“We announced a few weeks ago that the White House had worked with the security service to update the policies to ensure that past marijuana use wouldn’t automatically disqualify staff from serving in the White House,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated in a tweet on Friday. She also linked to an NBC News report from February 26th, 2021, regarding these altered guidelines.
“As a result, more people will serve who would not have in the past with the same level of recent drug use.”
According to this initial NBC News report, while marijuana use is legal in an increasing number of cities and states across the US, it is still deemed illegal under federal law. This differentiation serves as a possible disqualifying factor for individuals seeking to obtain positions with security clearances.
Officials also outlined that the use of recreational cannabis could be a possible “hurdle for applicants, especially younger ones” in meeting that requirement.
“The bottom line is this: of the hundreds of people hired, only five people who had started working at the White House are no longer employed as a result of this policy,” Psaki explained.
The termination of these five employees comes as the Biden administration seeks to balance the federal cannabis law while pushing more progressive hiring guidelines. According to a more recent NBC News report from Friday, several other White House employees with a history of marijuana use are working remotely and undergoing suitability reviews.
On the Defensive
Biden’s press secretary Psaki’s comments followed the release of a Daily Beast report citing three people “familiar with the situation” stating that dozens of White House staffers had been “suspended, asked to resign or placed in a remote work program due to past marijuana use.”
This decision came at the frustration of staffers who were relieved to hear of the Biden administration’s indications, as mentioned above, that recreational cannabis use would not be an immediately disqualifying factor.
The Daily Beast report continues that some “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.”
So, how is the White House defending its flip-flopping policy?
According to the February NBC News report, one White House official claimed that the revised guidelines would: “effectively protect our national security while modernizing policies to ensure that talented and otherwise well-qualified applicants with limited marijuana use will not be barred from serving the American people.”
However, in that same report, the White House would not specify just how many of these waivers would be granted.
“While we will not get into individual cases, there were additional factors at play in many instances for the small number of individuals who were terminated,” Psaki went on to explain.
Perhaps the most challenging obstacle regarding cannabis policies in the United States is that there is no clear legislative stance.
As we outlined previously, multiple states have legalized recreational and medicinal cannabis. Across the country, 15 states, two territories and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational use. That said, 34 states permit it for medicinal purposes.
However, this means there is increased confusion regarding employees working in an area (Washington D.C.) where cannabis is legal but representing an administration at a federal level where it’s not.
According to the more recent NBC News report, officials said a waiver would only be granted to individuals who had used marijuana on a “limited basis” and in positions that do not require a security clearance.
Additionally, those granted waivers have to agree to halt all cannabis use for their government service duration and agree to random drug testing. These workers would also have to “work remotely for an unspecified period following their last acknowledged use of marijuana.”
That said, many staffers have been working remotely regardless due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, declared in a statement:
“What’s happening now is a vivid illustration of unrealistic, unfair and out-of-touch cannabis policies. There is confusion across the country because of out of date laws and the fact that the American public is not waiting for the federal government to get its act together.”
Similarly, Aaron Smith, chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association, highlighted the point that three of the last five US presidents, “including the current president’s former boss,” have admitted to using cannabis.
A Threat to National Security?
What seems to be the most significant flaw in the government’s argument for enacting these debatably contradictory policies is the very reason behind their creation in the first place – national security.
The modernized policy that the Biden administration argues would “ensure that talented and otherwise well-qualified applicants with limited marijuana use will not be barred from serving the American people” is a lose-lose scenario.
It argues that previous marijuana use is a factor that won’t necessarily hinder someone from occupying these positions while simultaneously inhibiting and penalizing them from doing so because they have a history of cannabis use.
That said, say someone chooses not to disclose or misrepresent their drug history in White House paperwork or during interviews with security personnel. That act in itself, on top of their unrevealed cannabis use, could be a reason for them being deemed unsuitable for security clearance.
Ultimately, it comes down to establishing clear and transparent federal laws regarding cannabis use and legalization across the United States’ to avoid these opposing policies and guidelines from continuing to be issues moving forward.
Until that happens, broad-stroked and outdated misrepresentation of cannabis use in the United States will continue to be a confusing and opaque obstacle while other countries like Canada or Mexico will be using cannabis freely.