Folks, there is some high-grade malarkey wafting up from Pennsylvania Avenue this morning. The Daily Beast reports that “dozens of young White House staffers have been suspended, asked to resign, or placed in a remote work program due to past marijuana use.” The pot-smoker purge is happening despite the fact that, just last month, Biden’s team announced new personnel guidelines suggesting that individuals who had used cannabis recreationally wouldn’t necessarily be blocked from jobs. According to the Beast, staffers have been penalized even if they only partook in states where marijuana is fully legalized.
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and usage is considered a red flag that can prevent someone from receiving a security clearance. In the guidelines that it released in February, the White House said it would nix the requirement that every one of its staffers be able to qualify for a top secret clearance in order to make marijuana less of a hurdle. But it also added that the waiver would only apply on a case-by-case basis to people whose actual job did not require a security clearance, and whose marijuana use had been limited.
It’s a bit, uh, hazy exactly how many people have been tripped up by this issue, and what their exact jobs were. The report suggests that some of staffers may have gotten in trouble for “inconsistencies” in their background report (shockingly, someone might have misremembered the last time they took a puff), and a White House spokesperson “disputed the number of affected staff” (Update, March 19, 2:56 PM: On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that only five staffers had been fired due to marijuana use, and defended the administration’s policy changes, saying “more people will serve who would not have in the past with the same level of recent drug use.”). But, in the end, it’s hard to see beyond the fact that potentially talented staffers are being booted from the administration because they indulged in a mostly harmless drug.
First, the political optics are just silly. Yes, Biden is a little bit of an old fogey on pot issues who says he still has concerns about it even as he’s backed nationwide decriminalization. But at this point, 14 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for recreational purposes. Most of the Democratic Party is on board with legalization—Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer does youth outreach by chatting with weed-industry websites like Leafly. The party’s beloved ex-president was once a ganja enthusiast whose group of friends called themselves the choom gang. And, for the love of God, our current vice president, Kamala Harris, tried to soften her image by admitting she smoked pot and listened to hip-hop in college—you know, like a normal person.
And on a substantive level? The argument for treating marijuana use any differently from other vices like drinking is increasingly and obviously outdated.
To get a better sense of why the government still looks askance at marijuana use, I talked to Greg Rinckey, an attorney who specializes in federal employment law and a founding partner of the firm Tully Rinckey. First, he cautioned that just because people have smoked a few times in the past doesn’t necessarily disqualify them from a security clearance. But casual, semi-regular use can. “If you used marijuana one or two or three times during college, they’re not going to deny [you],” he said. “If you disclose, ‘I started using in college, and I still use it 10 times or 20 times a year,’ that’s going to be an issue.”
Part of the worry, Rinckey said, is simply that marijuana is federally prohibited and the government sees habitual lawbreakers as a security risk—the sort of person who indulges in illicit substances might be the same sort who’d send off documents to, say, WikiLeaks. “The way they look at it is, you’re not following the rules,” he said. “And if you have access to classified information, that’s going to be a concern for them. ‘If they have access to classified information, are they going to be more wishy washy with it?’” At the same time, he said, reviewers are also concerned that heavy users might get high and spill secrets to someone they’re not supposed to. “Really what it comes down to is impairment and judgment,” he said.
My assumption is that, to most people who have yet to receive an AARP card, none of this will seem particularly convincing. In much of America, marijuana use is only nominally criminal and is as socially acceptable as having a nightcap; the idea that you need some sort of special criminal streak to partake is absurd. You can Google dispensaries in the nation’s capital (for medicinal use, and the city is considering legislation to allow recreational sales), and you can barely walk down the street in Denver without passing a big green cross. As far as the possibility that someone might get stoned and decide it’d be a great idea to tell their friends about some classified info? Sure, somebody who can’t control their behavior because they have a serious substance-abuse problem probably shouldn’t be given access to nation’s closely guarded secrets. But the same principle would apply to a drinking habit, and there’s no reason to think that someone who enjoys a joint on the weekend is especially untrustworthy. As Mark Zaid, a well-known D.C. attorney who deals with national security and clearance law, told me in an email: “This is an issue that finally needs to be addressed by the federal government. A policy change is needed as it is an increasingly unfair and frankly absurd security policy.”
I’d take things a bit further: Firing staffers because of marijuana use is not just absurd but fundamentally bad for the country. The White House is depriving itself of young talent because of a nonissue, while sending mixed messages about its devotion to loosening up our outdated marijuana laws, which have disproportionately led to the incarceration of minorities. What’s most galling is that this is completely in Biden’s own hands, given that the president has the power to greenlight anybody he wants for a security clearance. If Donald Trump could order the bureaucracy to give his failson-in-law a top secret clearance (despite concerns from the CIA!), Biden should be able to let a few tokers slide.