A group of House Democrats is asking the Biden administration to “clarify” its policies regarding previous marijuana use after reports surfaced that several employees were fired for admitting to consuming the drug prior to their employment in the White House.
In a letter penned to Biden on Thursday, lawmakers praised the president for his “early action to clarify that previous cannabis use would not automatically disqualify applicants from employment in your administration.”
But the group of 30-plus Democrats, led by Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, went on to criticise the administration’s lack of transparency on the issue, pointing to seeming inconsistencies in White House policy.
“We, however, were dismayed to learn that several White House staffers were reportedly suspended, put on probation, or asked to resign after honestly disclosing past cannabis use,” the letter read in part. “We ask that you clarify your employment suitability policies, remove past cannabis use as a potential disqualifier, and apply these policies with consistency and fairness.”
NBC News was the first outlet in late February to report that the Biden administration planned to issue waivers on a limited basis to employees who disclosed “limited” marijuana use in their past, and only ones who did not require a security clearance. White House press secretary Jen Psaki later confirmed the policy, saying administration officials “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."
Last week, the Daily Beast and CNN reported that several White House staffers had been suspended, asked to resign, or placed on temporary remote work after admitting to past marijuana use during background checks. The claims seemed to fly in the face of signals from Biden's administration that their policies on prior cannabis use in potential employees would be loosened for those in lower-level positions.
In response to the reports, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday clarified that less than half a dozen people had been disqualified from White House roles after disclosing marijuana 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,” she said in a two-part Twitter post.
“In an effort to ensure that more people have an opportunity to serve the public, we worked in coordination with the security service to ensure that more people have the opportunity to serve than would not have in the past with the same level of recent drug use,” Psaki said in a statement to the Associated Press. “While we will not get into individual cases, there were additional factors at play in many instances for the small number of individuals who were terminated.”
On Wednesday, Psaki stressed that the staffers had been let go due to "other security issues that were raised,” also pointing out that marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
While it’s true that the use of recreational marijuana is still a federal crime, it has been increasingly approved at state-wide levels in recent years. 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, have broadly legalized the use of recreational cannabis; voters in New Jersey, South Dakota and Montana approved making possession of recreational marijuana legal just last November.
The letter penned Thursday noted that numerous high-level officials in Biden’s administration have admitted to previous cannabis use, with no repercussions.
During her brief run for president, now-vice president Kamala Harris admitted to smoking marijuana in college. When asked by Charlamagne tha God during a radio interview if she had ever smoked, Harris responded: "I have. And I inhaled. I did inhale,” a reference to former president Bill Clinton’s claim that while he tried marijuana, he did not enjoy it, and “didn’t inhale” the drug.
Pete Buttigieg, who now serves as the transportation secretary under Biden, made a similar admission during his run for president, saying in October 2019: "I have (tried marijuana). A handful of times a long time ago.”
House Democrats urged the Biden administration to rectify the double standard, saying the same allowances should be extended to employees at every level of the administration.
“While we work to deschedule cannabis legislatively, your administration should act within its power to stop legitimizing unfair cannabis laws,” the Democrats wrote. “You have previously expressed your commitment to decriminalizing cannabis in acknowledgement that a cannabis conviction or even the stigma of cannabis use can ruin lives and prevent people from voting, gaining employment, and contributing to society.
“You can meet this moment and help end our failed punitive policy of cannabis prohibition,” the letter concluded.
The push to legalize marijuana has coincided, in large part, with growing calls for criminal justice reform. Numerous studies have found that enforcement of marijuana arrests disproportionately impact those in minority groups or with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. According to a report from the ACLU, Black people are over three times as likely than white people to be arrested for possession of marijuana nationwide, despite marijuana use being roughly equal between the two groups.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.