Dozens of Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter Thursday calling on President Joe Biden to end punishing employees in his administration who were reportedly suspended, urged to resign or pressured into remote work after revealing past marijuana use.
But the White House is pushing back, saying its stance on prior use of pots is far more “permissive” than previous administrations, including that of former President Barack Obama.
In the letter to Biden from Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, a longtime advocate of US marijuana policy reform, dismay was expressed after reports by staff who had been subjected to background checks “after past cannabis use honestly disclosed “.
“We ask that you clarify your employability guidelines, remove previous cannabis use as a potential disqualifier, and apply these guidelines consistently and fairly,” the letter reads.
It was signed by 29 other House Democrats, including Don Beyer from Virginia, Mondaire Jones from New York, Barbara Lee from California, Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, and Joaquin Castro from Texas.
The letter quoted a Daily Beast report last week in which “dozen” young White House workers were withdrawn from circulation or urged to resign. That report came weeks after government officials said the White House would not automatically disqualify employees for previous marijuana use.
However, a White House official told CNBC that no staff had been fired for pot use “years ago” or “occasionally or infrequently” in the past 12 months.
“The Biden White House has been more permissive about past marijuana use than previous governments,” the official said.
For example, former President Donald Trump’s White House did not allow previous marijuana use last year, and Obama has not called for pot use in the past six months, according to the official.
The policy change under Biden “has allowed around a dozen White House employees to continue serving in administration who would not have been allowed under the guidelines of previous administrations,” the official said.
When asked about the policy at a news conference Wednesday, Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, stated that while marijuana is legal in a growing number of states, “it is still illegal at the federal level.”
She added that of the five people who are no longer in the White House due to pot-use guidelines, “some” “had other security issues that were raised”.
Potential candidates for roles in the president’s executive office – especially younger candidates – have encountered problems due to “occasional marijuana use,” the White House official told CNBC. The Biden White House approved an exemption from the requirement that staff in that office be “top secret,” the official said.
To qualify for this exemption, employees must cease using marijuana and agree not to participate in government service while undergoing random drug testing.
Around a dozen employees are currently working remotely “until they meet the standards for a security clearance,” the official said.
Meanwhile, Blumenauer’s letter reads: “The existing guidelines have been applied in an inconsistent and unfair manner.”
The letter highlighted the fact that Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, and former President Barack Obama have all admitted to having previously used cannabis.
“Those in the upper echelons of your administration will and should not have any consequences for their cannabis use, but the same standard should be applied across the administration,” the letter said.
“The effects on cannabis use have always been unequal and those in greatest power have always had the least consequence,” wrote the Democrats. “We ask you not to continue this pattern in your administration.”
The letter called on the government to “act within its powers to end legitimizing unfair cannabis laws”.
“You have previously expressed your commitment to the decriminalization of cannabis by acknowledging that cannabis condemnation, or even the stigma of cannabis use, can ruin lives and prevent people from choosing, finding employment and contributing to society “wrote the Democrats.
“You can hit this moment and help end our failed cannabis ban criminal policy.”