President Joe Biden’s administration is telling staffers that they absolutely have to have just said no to drugs—after telling them it was ok to have said yes to one specific drug every now and then.
Per a report in the Daily Beast, “dozens” of White House staffers have been “suspended, asked to resign, or placed in a remote work program” over past cannabis use that Biden’s team had signaled it would overlook when hiring, even when the staffer in question got high in one of the 14 states (and DC) that have legalized it. Bafflingly, the staffers are being punished for openly disclosing they’d taken part in the ganj:
Sources familiar with the matter also said a number of young staffers were either put on probation or canned because they revealed past marijuana use in an official document they filled out as part of the lengthy background check for a position in the Biden White House.
In some cases, 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.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted in response to the Beast’s report that only five staffers out of hundreds hired by the White House were no longer employed, though that number doesn’t count those who had offers rescinded, are on suspension, or put on remote duties. In a statement to the Beast, Psaki wrote there were “additional factors at play in many instances for the small number of individuals who were terminated.” Other statements from the White House to the Beast insisted that the Biden administration’s policy was relaxed from his predecessors.
The vast majority of workers in the Executive Office of the President must obtain security clearances, and to get them they have to fill out form SF-86, a lengthy questionnaire used to vet background checks. Among other things such as arrest records, bankruptcies, and mental health, it inquires about drug use in the last seven years and is intended to identify fitness for employment, loyalty, and anything that could leave a candidate susceptible to blackmail.
The background checks subsequently carried out can include extensive other questioning and aren’t always finished before an employee actually starts work (some may be given interim security clearances to perform the functions of their jobs in the meantime). As the Beast noted, questions concerning prior drug use are largely based on the honor system and whether any relatives, friends, or references contacted by investigators contradict the applicant’s accounts. It’s possible that a few of the punishments handed down to White House staffers were the result of conflicting or incorrect info on these forms, although the exact criteria the administration would use to disqualify them wasn’t known to them at the time.
The number of staffers punished under prior administrations for prior cannabis use isn’t clear, though it may be higher in this case because the administration signaled ex-pot smokers were free to apply.
Biden has total power to overrule security clearance determinations, and obviously is in control of which administration staffers are punished for what, so the crackdown is ultimately his call. Note that while Biden’s team promised to be more flexible on the cannabis issue, Biden himself only recently flipped on debunked science declaring weed a “gateway drug” and has offered only tepid and reluctant support for federal decriminalization. So this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his commitment to reform.
Democrats have tried to inch forward on reforming anything about federal cannabis laws, which polling shows is supported by the vast majority of the U.S. population. But they’ve been hamstrung by the conservative wing of the party, which is obsessed with fear of political backlash. House Democrats voted overwhelmingly to decriminalized weed last year, though the measure stood no chance in the Senate.
“There were one-on-one calls with individual affected staffers—rather, ex-staffers,” one former White House staffer told the Beast. “I was asked to resign... Nothing was ever explained. The policies were never explained, the threshold for what was excusable and what was inexcusable was never explained.”
“It’s exclusively targeting younger staff and staff who came from states where it was legal,” the staffer added.