It was only last month that the White House made news for taking what was seen as a notably progressive position on cannabis use.
At the time, officials told NBC News that as long as any past cannabis use was “limited” (a nebulous distinction) and that candidates were not pursuing positions that required a security clearance, instances of previous pot consumption could possibly be excused. Unfortunately, a rather explosive new story from the Daily Beast published last week has revealed that the words of the Biden administration have, at least thus far, failed to match their actions.
As the Daily Beast reported on March 18:
“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.”
Reporters Scott Bixby, Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley further noted that this anti-pot 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.”
As detailed in the Daily Beast story, sources shared that a number of young staffers had been either placed on probation or outright fired as a result of having admitted to past cannabis use. When did these admissions occur? On an official document — one that potential Biden White House staffers were required to fill out as part of an arduous background check process.
Far from being a benign mistake, the Daily Beast details why these staffers felt comfortable being honest when it came to the question of any past cannabis use: they were told it be overlooked.
“In some cases,” the Daily Beast noted, “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.”
Both lawmakers and cannabis advocates wasted no time in responding to the revelations published by the Daily Beast.
First was White House press secretary Jen Psaki. On March 19, a day after the story went live, Psaki tweeted a link to the NBC News report from February. She then followed that post with a message of her own:
“The bottom line is this,” she wrote. “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.”
Regardless of the number of staffers affected, news of this policy decision has been met almost entirely with derision from a diverse pool of voices that includes everyone from cannabis advocacy groups to GOP lawmakers.
“This is an opportunity for the Biden administration to help end the failed War on Drugs and make a more rational policy for everyone,” he wrote. “This is where America is going and I hope they figure out a path forward that is fair and realistic. In the meantime, these young people should not be singled out and discriminated against for something that is legal in much of the country and supported by the vast majority of Americans.”
The contrast of public support for cannabis policy reform with the approach the Biden White House has reportedly taken is certainly sizeable.
This hypocrisy was top of mind for Chris Roberts of Forbes, who pointed to a lack of convincing proof when it comes to our rationale for banning cannabis consumers from certain forms of employment.
“Exactly why cannabis is a national security risk or a disqualifying act for certain federal jobs has never been clearly established,” noted Roberts, “except that it is illegal (or used to be). Both the FBI and the NSA famously relaxed that prohibition, after they encountered trouble finding cybersecurity experts and hackers whose drug records were clean.”
Roberts also highlighted the fact that an extremely prominent member of the Biden administration — Vice President Kamala Harris — admitted to smoking cannabis in a 2019 radio interview.
Ignoring the fact that Harris would subsequently go on to enforce cannabis laws for decades in her role as a prosecutor, her role as a major focal point of the Biden administration seems to undercut the argument that those who have previously used cannabis cannot hack it in the upper echelons of politics.
As expected, a number of organizations working within the legalized cannabis space have also shared their displeasure with this White House policy switcheroo.
Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association, told LA Weekly that based on what he’d heard so far, things looked “really bad” for the White House.
“Punishing current and potential employees for past cannabis use,” Smith said, “particularly under circumstances where it was protected by state laws, flies in the face of the administration’s purported emphasis on fairness and sensible cannabis policies, to say nothing of its very recent guidance to federal agencies in this area.”
Smith also noted three of the last five U.S. presidents — “including the current president’s former boss” — have admitted to consuming cannabis.
“The idea that past use would make a person unfit for service in the White House or ineligible for a security clearance is laughable,” he concluded.
Smith’s views were largely echoed by NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri, who released his own statement, in part decrying the “‘Flat Earth’ mentality” of the Biden Administration in their approach on this matter.
“[This mentality] refuses to recognize the reality that millions of Americans currently engage in the use of cannabis in a manner that is compliant with the laws of their states and that these people are at no greater risk for occupational accidents or injuries,” Altieri wrote. “They should not be singled out and discriminated against solely for this activity, and it is highly inappropriate for the Biden Administration to take these punitive actions.”
In a follow-up feature for the New York Times published on March 22, representatives from both the ACLU and the “conservative-leaning” R Street Institute joined the chorus of those in opposition to the White House’s policy on past cannabis use.
“Marijuana possession continues to be the No. 1 arrest in America, year after year, and it’s these types of wrongheaded employer policies that perpetuate this,” said Udi Ofer, director of the justice division at the ACLU.
“Arguably, the Biden administration has missed an important opportunity here,” said Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute. “Like any administration, they do need to have consistent policies. And rewriting things willy-nilly is difficult. On the other hand, the tide very clearly is turning in the direction of legalization.”
Finally, on March 23, Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) — a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus — shared a new letter in which he too advocated for a more progressive approach on the issue.
“Simply put,” Joyce writes, “in a nation where the truth is considered malleable, we need to demonstrate to our young public servants that telling the truth is an honorable trait, not one to be punished. I respectfully request that your administration discontinue punishment of staff for being honest about their prior cannabis use and reinstate otherwise qualified individuals to their posts.”
Where this saga goes next still remains to be seen.
As Marijuana Moment reports, Rep. Blumenauer plans to send a letter of his own to President Biden which will outline “his concerns about the adverse action White House staff have faced over previous cannabis use.”
In addition, Reps. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), Don Beyer (D-VA), Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) are expected to add their names to the letter, while Lee has requested a meeting with the Biden Administration to “discuss federal marijuana issues” and plans to address the employment policy at the White House as part of that discussion.