Pubdate: Sat, 20 Mar 2021
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2021 The New York Times Company
Author: Katie Rogers and Zolan Kanno-Youngs


WASHINGTON - In February, the Biden administration signaled that past
marijuana use would not necessarily disqualify a person from
employment by relaxing longstanding policies that have barred some
past users of the drug from working in the White House.

The change was seen as a way to open the door for younger talent from
parts of the country where marijuana has been legalized, but it took
only a few weeks for the new guidelines to be publicly tested.

On Friday, responding to a news report in The Daily Beast that said
dozens of young staff members had been pushed to resign or had been
reassigned to remote work based on their past marijuana use, Jen
Psaki, the White House press secretary, confirmed that some employees
had been sidelined but said that it applied to fewer people.

"The bottom line is this," Ms. Psaki wrote on Twitter, "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."

The episode highlighted how murky the new guidelines are, particularly
for a White House that has pledged to embrace progressive positions. A
number of officials who have disclosed past marijuana use but are
still permitted to work for the Biden administration have been asked
to sign a pledge not to use marijuana while working for the
government, and they must also submit to random drug testing,
according to officials. Not everyone who disclosed past marijuana use
during an extensive background check has been given the chance to stay

Aides to President Biden defended the policy, noting that previous
administrations enforced stringent measures, including President
Barack Obama, who engaged in recreational drug use as a youth. The
Obama administration required past use to have been six months old or
longer or only two to three uses in the past year.

Still, critics saw a culture clash between a class of young new hires
- - who may have been under the impression that past marijuana use would
not be a disqualifying concern - and Mr. Biden's historically more
moderate stance toward the drug. Marijuana use and possession is still
a federal crime, despite fast-growing public support to legalize the

"There are competing interests within administration and policies that
have been on the books for a very long time that are now coming in
contact with new ideas and new people that want to change those
policies," Udi Ofer, the director of the justice division at the
American Civil Liberties Union. "Today we learned it can still be a

The five officials Ms. Psaki mentioned on Friday had been directed to
resign in part because of past marijuana use, according to a person
familiar with the matter but who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Several in that group also had other disqualifying factors that
surfaced when determining their eligibility to receive jobs in the
administration, that person said.

About a dozen administration officials have been directed to work
remotely until they have been cleared to meet a new standard of past
marijuana use set by White House officials overseeing personnel
security. Officials did not detail that timeline on Friday.

The rules were released amid guidance from the United States Office of
Personnel Management that could affect how people in agencies across
the federal government qualify for employment.

"It would be inconsistent with suitability regulations to implement a
policy of finding an individual unfit or unsuitable for federal
service solely on the basis of recency of marijuana use," wrote
Kathleen McGettigan, the agency's acting director. "Past marijuana
use, including recently discontinued marijuana use, should be viewed
differently from ongoing marijuana use."

Drug policy experts raised questions about whether the White House
policy reflected that the Biden administration would be slower to
decriminalize marijuana and expunge nonviolent marijuana-related
convictions, as Mr. Biden had promised on the campaign trail.

Some also worried that other businesses would follow the White House's
lead in filtering out employees based on past marijuana use, even as
some police departments across the country loosen their policies for
new recruits.

"It's hard enough to get a job. This is just another thing," said
Maritza Perez, the director of the office of national affairs for the
Drug Policy Alliance. "You would think that we were at a different
place now."

Ms. Perez pointed out that Vice President Kamala Harris, a former
Democratic senator of California, won the support of those in the
marijuana advocacy community when she helped sponsor sweeping
legislation that would decriminalize the drug and expunge nonviolent
related convictions.

"I do think this undercuts that previous stance," Ms. Perez

While Mr. Biden was slow to support the decriminalization of
marijuana, Ms. Harris, a former prosecutor, signaled support for
legalization multiple times during her campaign.

In what was supposed to be a lighthearted moment that soon turned
viral, she even acknowledged on "The Breakfast Club," a wide-ranging
radio show that focuses on hip-hop and Black culture, that she "did
inhale" marijuana in college "a long time ago."

Time has passed since those statements and the actions against young
administration officials has proponents of criminal justice and
marijuana legalization curious where the White House stands.

"There is confusion across the country because of out-of-date laws and
the fact that the American public is not waiting for the federal
government to get its act together," said Representative Earl
Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon.

Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control
Policy during the Obama administration, said that even then, the White
House was worried about any perceived leniency toward drug crimes.

After telling The Wall Street Journal in 2009 that the administration
wanted to end the idea of a "war on drugs," Mr. Kerlikowske said he
was rewarded with an angry call.

"The next day a young person from the White House communications
office said, 'Can you really say that? Aren't they going to think
we're soft on drugs?" Mr. Kerlikowske said. He told the White House
staff member that even his peer police chiefs were moving on from such
messaging. "The drug issues are always very sensitive."
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