.Dude Abides

White House’s mixed message on cannabis

Last week, we learned that the Biden administration has reportedly fired or sidelined dozens of White House staffers because of cannabis use.

In the past, this might not have been a big deal; after all, cannabis is still illegal federally and the use of illicit drugs has been disqualifying for decades. But the news came just weeks after the administration issued guidelines stating that it would deemphasize cannabis use in its screening process. Even this isn’t particularly shocking, since the administration never abandoned the existing policy, but merely said cannabis use would no longer be “automatically” disqualifying. 

What caught people by surprise is the fact that, according to The Daily Beast, which broke the story, dozens of staffers and applicants were affected, though many had been “informally” told by hiring managers their use of cannabis wouldn’t be a factor. As a result, many staffers admitted to past cannabis use in the background forms they filled out. Some were then fired or asked to resign, suspended, put on probation or ordered to work remotely. 

All of this, of course, would be a non-issue if the weed were legal at the federal level. 

With the new administration has come new hope that something like the MORE Act—which would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level—would pass the Senate and Biden would sign it into law. Now, advocates for legalization have reason to worry that might not happen. 

Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have sent mixed messages about whether they think pot should be legalized, and for the moment at least, Biden is on record as opposing it.

The White House had an option in its hiring. It could have, if it wanted to, simply not taken cannabis use into consideration at all in screening staffers. Ben Rhodes, who was a deputy national security advisor under Obama, tweeted in response to the story about the fired staffers that he’d acknowledged past cannabis use on his background forms, and paid no penalty for it.

“It would be wrong to punish people for something that is entirely normal and increasingly legal,” he wrote.

That underlines even more how the Biden administration, perhaps unsurprisingly, is following in the footsteps of the confusing approach the Obama administration took to cannabis.

After the Obama White House announced it would greatly deemphasize enforcement of cannabis offenses in states with legal medical or recreational pot, the Drug Enforcement Administration nevertheless raided a bunch of cannabis operations in California (famously including Oaksterdam University).

Now onlookers wonder what the Biden administration’s true policies are—just as they did under Obama. 

“The policies were never explained,” one White House staffer who has been asked to resign told The Daily Beast. “The threshold for what was excusable and what was inexcusable was never explained.”

After the news broke, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that only five people working at the White House were “no longer employed as a result of this policy.” But she didn’t say how many people who had been hired and hadn’t yet started work were disqualified or elaborate on suspensions or work-from-home orders.

When pressed, Psaki told The Daily Beast “there were additional factors at play in many instances for the small number of individuals who were terminated.” The White House did not respond to a request for clarification, but it did issue a statement asserting that “the White House’s approach to past marijuana use is much more flexible than previous administrations.”

Unsurprisingly, advocates for cannabis reform are incensed and confused. 

Particularly when employees come from one of the 14 states—plus Washington, D.C.—where pot is legal, those workers “should not be singled out and discriminated against solely for this activity,” Erik Altieri, executive director for the National Organization for The Reform of Marijuana Laws says. “It is highly inappropriate for the Biden administration to take these punitive actions.”

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