President Joe Biden’s Administration fired five White House staffers and sanctioned dozens more for past cannabis use as part of a security clearance vetting process.
The move was first reported by the Daily Beast then confirmed by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki in a tweet. Psaki also said the Biden Administration had updated the policy on staffers’ past use of marijuana to ensure it was no longer an automatic disqualification from working in the White House.
As a result, more people will serve who would not have in the past with the same level of recent drug use. 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.
— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) March 19, 2021
Still, out of hundreds of people who’ve been hired, dozens were asked to resign, were suspended or requested to work remotely for having used cannabis, even in states where it is legal – despite assurances they’d face no repercussions for making the disclosure. The move is particularly notable since Vice President Kamala Harris’s own past use of marijuana – disclosed in a 2019 radio interview – didn’t disqualify her from her position in the Biden Administration.
The updated policy is supposed to allow waivers on a case-by-case basis for staffers who’ve used marijuana to nonetheless work in the White House, without going through the stringent vetting process for Top Secret security clearance. Staffers who said they’d used a “limited” amount of cannabis in the past, and agreed not to use it while working in the White House, and consented to random drug tests would be permitted to work under the policy. Those who disclosed more substantial marijuana use would be disqualified from employment, while those who’d used small amounts recently would be asked to work remotely for an unspecified period of time.
The Biden Administration reportedly changed the policy because it was having trouble recruiting new staff due to the large numbers of people – around half the American population – who’ve tried cannabis at least once. But staffers said they weren’t told how much past marijuana use was considered too much. Further, it made no difference whether the staffer had used cannabis in one of the fourteen states or the District of Columbia where it’s now legal, or if it was for medical purposes.
“The policies were never explained, the threshold for what was excusable and what was inexcusable was never explained,” said one anonymous staffer.
Psaki later suggested there were “additional factors at play” for the five who’d been fired, but did not elaborate on what they were, nor did the White House respond to further requests for comment.
Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor under President Obama, tweeted to say he disclosed his own past use of marijuana as part of his security clearance but it didn’t disqualify him from working on sensitive negotiations such as the Iran nuclear deal and the reopening of ties with Cuba.
I have no idea if this is true, but I do know I served as a deputy national security advisor from 2009-2017 having acknowledged past marijuana use on my forms. It would be wrong to punish people for something that is entirely normal and increasingly legal https://t.co/99kfN30NFn
— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) March 19, 2021
President Joe Biden has taken a punitive approach toward drug use throughout his political career, but has softened on the issue of marijuana legalization in recent years as the policy has gained more mainstream acceptance and near unanimous support within the Democratic party. While he stopped short of endorsing full legalization, he supports federal decriminalization and expungements for past marijuana offenses. The latter policy would help ensure individuals with past cannabis convictions aren’t discriminated against on that basis by prospective employers.