Anthony Armour wants his job at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) back. But after being fired for testing positive for THC that he attributes to federally legal CBD products, his legal fight for reinstatement is causing significant financial hardship—and now he’s turning to the public for help.
Described by DEA as an “outstanding” special agent during his 16-year tenure, Armour was ultimately terminated by the agency in 2019 following a random drug screening that revealed traces of THC metabolites. He admitted to taking CBD for chronic pain as an opioid alternative—and he turned over the products he believed to be federally legal under the 2018 Farm Bill—but DEA upheld his firing even upon appeal.
“I enjoyed what I did. I love what I did,” Armour told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Tuesday. “The whole thing—I’m really just disappointed in the route that they took.”
The Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives like CBD containing up to 0.3 percent THC by dry weight has forced many federal agencies to reconcile their workplace drug policies. That includes DEA—but the departmental guidance only came after the former agent was terminated, which is noted in a briefing his attorneys filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in May.
It’s been a costly case years in the making. Armour, who said he continues to use CBD while unemployed because, while he doesn’t consider it a “miracle drug,” the non-intoxicating cannabinoid has resulted in a “significant improvement in my overall well-being with the medical issues that I’ve had.” It’s also allowed him to manage pain without resorting to addictive opioids, the illicit trafficking of which he spent much of his career working to combat.
Faced with “out of this world” legal fees, ineligibility for unemployment benefits due to the “for cause” nature of his firing and difficulties securing work in his field, the former DEA agent said that he’s maxed out his credit cards to make ends meet, with his previously “perfect” credit scores dropping to the “poor” range. He started a GoFundMe campaign last week to raise money to help cover the costs of litigation and basic expenses.
“I had a short stint of employment, but it was contract work so that didn’t last long. I’ve been trying to just get back on my feet,” he said. “Being in a position like this is, especially given the nature of my job, I’m not out there. I don’t have social media. I don’t use social media. So just telling my story, you’ve got to be vulnerable. And it was the last thing I want to do because that’s the kind of person I am.”
Armour has emphasized that his problem isn’t with DEA as an institution. He recognizes that there are many who use cannabis who hold deep resentment with the agency given its historic role in enforcing criminalization—and while he hopes to return to work there, he agrees that the laws around cannabis need to fundamentally change.
“I support legalization. I support common sense legislation,” he said. “And, obviously, the science backing legalization is there, and it’s just been ignored this entire time. Thankfully, we have people that are able to bring the issue to light and educate a lot of people.”
He also wants people to know—particularly critics who might be skeptical about sympathizing with a former DEA special agent—that, from his perspective, “law enforcement, public service, is really no different from any other job.”
“The rules that I have to follow,” he said, “and my job, obviously, as an agent was to enforce the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Which I did, and I didn’t violate that.”
Yet it was the CSA, and the use of an ostensibly legal product that contained more THC than he intended to consume, that cost Armour his job. It was an attempt to relieve chronic pain with a natural product that evidently crossed the threshold from permissible (albeit loosely regulated) hemp extract to Schedule I marijuana.
DEA is actively reviewing the federal scheduling status of cannabis under a directive from President Joe Biden last year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already completed its part of the review, concluding that marijuana should be moved to the less restrictive, but still illegal, Schedule III of the CSA. But DEA makes the final call.
“I don’t know what to think about that. You just really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Armour said of the agency’s review. “What I do know is what CBD did for me. It improved my life and my ailments greatly.”
Even so, the career law enforcement official said that he’d forgo CBD if he was allowed to return to DEA.
“I don’t know what the latest policy is, but I plan to follow the policy of the agency,” he said. Asked what that would mean for his health, Armour said it was a good question. “I’ll have to find some alternative treatments,” he said hesitantly, acknowledging that he remains unwilling to use opioids and gastrointestinal issues limit his ability to consistently take over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen.
“My case is bringing light to it. I remain optimistic that that [the circuit court] would rule in my favor,” he said. And his hopes is that would “bring change to some of the legislation that we have ongoing right now—some of the antiquated legislation we have.”
DEA, for its part, said in a response briefing last month that the former agent’s challenges to the termination are “without merit and improperly invite the Court to ignore well-established Federal drug policies and to reweigh the evidence in contravention of the standard of review.”
“Mr. Armour was an outstanding DEA agent when he took a chance in 2019. He believed it was unlikely that CBD products would cause him to test positive for marijuana, but he knew it was possible, and he bought those unregulated products on the internet and consumed them anyway,” DEA attorneys said. “Mr. Armour argues that he ‘displayed negligence or poor decision-making,’ and DEA properly held him accountable for his poor decisions when they resulted in a verified positive drug test. DEA lost trust in Mr. Armour and properly removed him.”
DEA acknowledged that Armour may not have intended to use an illegal drug, but said that because he knew the product contained at least trace amounts of THC, the consumption was “reckless” and warranted removal.
Notably, the agency relied on a Reagan-era executive order to define an “illegal drug,” which is any Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance that is not prescribed. Attorneys have raised questions as to whether federal employees like Armour would continue to face such penalties for marijuana if it’s moved to Schedule III.
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Meanwhile, a top health agency recently revised federal workplace drug testing guidelines to clarify that using medical marijuana under a doctor’s recommendation in a legal state is not a valid excuse for a positive THC test.
At the congressional level, lawmakers have worked multiple angles in recent legislation to try and provide protections for workers and job applicants against being penalized solely due to cannabis.
For example, people working in the climate sector would be protected from being fired for testing positive for marijuana if they’re based in a legal state under a newly refiled bill from more than 40 congressional Democrats.
The House Rules Committee has repeatedly blocked attempts by lawmakers to end the practice of drug testing federal job applicants for marijuana as part of large-scale spending bills this session.
Over in the Senate, however, members passed defense legislation in July that contains provisions to bar intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA from denying security clearances to applicants solely due to their past marijuana use.
The House Oversight and Accountability Committee also passed a standalone bipartisan bill last month that would prevent the denial of federal employment or security clearances based on a candidate’s past marijuana use.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.