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The Biden administration has responded to reports that staffers were being fired and suspended over past cannabis use. The outrage being expressed highlights the vast gulf between populist and establishment views of marijuana and has put the president’s outdated policies in the spotlight yet again.
Last week we reported that White House staffers had been disciplined for admitting to cannabis use in the past on a background check. Some were reportedly fired over the offense. This struck a bad chord for many who were under the impression that the administration would not be penalizing staffers over pot. Why were they under that impression? Because the White House had said as much in February.
The move has been criticized by advocates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Even the GOP got in on the action when Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking that he stop firing staffer over admitting to cannabis use. He said the move would encourage future potential staffers to lie and discouraged a general environment of honesty. “Simply put, in a nation where the truth is considered malleable, we need to demonstrate to our young public servants that telling the truth is an honorable trait, not one to be punished,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, the administration reportedly fired a number of staffers for having smoked cannabis in the past—even those who had used the drug exclusively in states where it’s legal. The backlash was palpable, and Press Secretary Jen Psaki had to address the issue last week when a reporter pointed out that even Vice President Kamala Harris had admitted to using cannabis in the past during a press conference.
“Let me first say that what we tried to do as an administration was work with the security service who actually makes these determinations about suitability for serving in government in the past. I served in the Obama-Biden administration, the rules were actually far more stringent,” Psaki said. “So that isn’t about anyone’s personal point of view. … It is still illegal federally,” she said.
When asked if Biden had the power to halt the firings, Psaki said, “I think if marijuana was federally legal, that might be a different circumstance, but I don’t think I have any more on this for you.”
The answer was a deflection of course. If the administration had indeed conducted the firings at the behest of intelligence agencies in charge of granting security clearances, Biden would have been able to override those agencies as commander-in-chief and grant security clearance as he sees fit. But as we are beginning to see, this president isn’t any more likely to fulfill his promises than his predecessors.
During the press conference, Psaki contradicted reports that “dozens” of staffers had been fired over cannabis use and said only five had been asked to resign. While she refused to get into specifics, she said “a number” of the five staffers raised “other security issues” outside of their cannabis use.
The White House’s avoidant response was soundly rejected by most news outlets and a number of bipartisan lawmakers, and Psaki had to address the issue again on Thursday.
In a statement provided to Playboy White House correspondent Brian Karem, the press secretary again contradicted reports from ex-staffers. “No one has been let go due to marijuana usage from years ago,” wrote Psaki. “No one has been let go due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.”
She even tried to make it sound as though the administration’s new policy were a step in the right direction. “The policy has allowed around a dozen White House staff to continue serving in the administration who would not have permitted under prior administrations’ policies,” she wrote.
On Thursday a bipartisan coalition of 30 members of Congress sent another letter to Biden demanding that he clarify the administration’s hiring policy and remove cannabis as a potential disqualifier. “Cannabis is legal for either medical or adult use in 36 states, with more than 50 percent of the adult population having used cannabis in their lifetimes,” wrote the authors. “This number is bound to rise as states across the country legalize through voter initiatives. … The American people are demanding a change to punitive and harsh cannabis laws that have always been unequally applied.”
The letter points out that the acting director of the federal Office of Personnel Management issued a memorandum in late February that instructed federal offices to evaluate cannabis use “on a case-by-case basis to determine the impact, if any, to the integrity and the efficiency of the Government” instead of it being an automatic disqualifier. The memorandum goes on to specifically forbid federal agencies from denying job applicants based solely on previous marijuana use.
The members of Congress went on to criticize the current policies’ “inconsistent and unfair” application, pointing out that former presidents Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama had admitted to using cannabis and once again highlighting Harris’ past use. “Those in the upper ranks of your administration won’t face consequences for their cannabis use, and nor should they, but the same standard should be applied across the administration.”
Biden’s views of cannabis have been at odds with his progressive supporters since day one. He was the author of the infamous 1994 Crime Bill, which increased drug penalties, introduced minimum sentencing laws and is often cited as the main force behind the massive spike in incarcerations suffered in the U.S. in the ’90s. He maintained that cannabis was a “gateway drug” until popular opinion shouted him down in November, 2019—just over a year ago.