The Biden administration has reportedly asked dozens of White House staff to resign or otherwise punished them over past marijuana use—a response that one congressman described to Marijuana Moment as “antiquated” and inconsistent with the burgeoning legalization movement.
Despite earlier reporting that the administration had instituted a policy of granting waivers to certain workers who admit to prior cannabis use, sources familiar with the issue told The Daily Beast that dozens of staffers have been fired, suspended or placed in a remote work program after disclosing their previous consumption on a federal form that’s used as part of the background check process.
One person who has gone on the record about using marijuana in her youth but who has ostensibly not faced employment penalties is Vice President Kamala Harris, who joked about her own cannabis consumption during her 2020 presidential campaign. It’s a point that advocates were quick to pick up on after news about the marijuana-related firings broke.
Asked about the report on Friday, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment that “we still have a very uneven response” to marijuana use in the federal government.
“One of the things that has happened with our efforts on legalization is that we are acknowledging that this is an antiquated response to an emerging issue,” he said. “People now understand how ubiquitous use of cannabis is for recreational use and for medical use, and it is something that involves well over 100 million Americans.”
“I think that you have blips like this occasionally—people sometimes get a little edgy—but this is going to be a thing of the past very soon. And our reform legislation that will be moving forward to will make clear that that’s not a basis for discrimination,” he added. “In fact, even people with past convictions dealing with cannabis will ultimately be able to be involved with the industry. This is part of an evolution. It’s taking place very quickly, and we’re watching changes in these policies as we speak.”
This is a vivid illustration of unrealistic, unfair, and out of touch cannabis policies.https://t.co/ZWg7d5L8ne
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) March 19, 2021
This is where America is going and I hope they figure out a path forward that is fair and realistic.
In the meantime, young people shouldn't be singled out and discriminated against for something that is legal in much of the country and supported by the majority of Americans.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) March 19, 2021
It’s not clear at this point whether the forthcoming congressional legislation would remove marijuana as a negative criteria in federal employment decisions, however, as a bill that the House passed last year maintained that cannabis could still be included in drug testing programs for federal workers.
The focus of lawmakers’ Friday call was on the reintroduction of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in the House this week. That legislation, which would protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, is being led by Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), who also weighed in on the Biden White House marijuana policy development.
The congressman told Marijuana Moment that while he hadn’t seen the news report, he is “sorry to hear that,” adding that it highlights the need for Congress to advance cannabis reform.
“We need to get the conflict between the federal and the state laws resolved because this does result in things like you just talked about,” he said. “And I think the first place we’re going to see real action and get it done because of the public safety and public health aspects will be on the SAFE Banking Act.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also addressed the controversy on Friday, pushing back on the extent of the firings over marijuana.
“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,” she said. “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.”
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
While five may have been terminated according to the White House, Psaki did not give figures on the number of people who faced suspensions or were asked to work remotely due to their cannabis use admission. The Daily Beast also noted that some of the adverse employment actions could have been because of inconsistencies in how people filled out their forms. For example, they may have misstated when they last used marijuana.
In any case, advocates maintain that any admission of cannabis use should not justify being penalized or prevented from working in the federal government, especially given that a majority of states have legalized marijuana in some form and given efforts in Congress to end federal prohibition.
Ben Rhodes, who served as national security adviser under President Barack Obama, reacted to the report by saying, “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,” adding that it “would be wrong to punish people for something that is entirely normal and increasingly legal.”
This would also obviously disproportionately impact young people who are HONEST.
— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) March 19, 2021
“This would also obviously disproportionately impact young people who are HONEST,” he said.
President Joe Biden personally opposes adult-use legalization but has backed more modest reforms such as legalizing for medical use, expunging prior cannabis records, rescheduling marijuana and allowing states to set their own policies.
There was optimism about reports earlier this year that the White House had enacted a more lenient policy when it comes to employment eligibility for people who’ve used cannabis.
An administration official told NBC News that their guidelines “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.”
Separately, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said in a recent memo distributed to federal agencies that admitting to past marijuana use should not automatically disqualify people from being employed in the federal government.