Biden Staffers Fired for Marijuana Use?

Credulous reports notwithstanding, there's more to the story.

Outlets on the left and right alike are blasting the Biden administration for firing staffers for admitting to smoking pot. There’s almost certainly something else going on, though.

I first saw the story early this morning through a retweet of a New York Post story (“Biden White House asks staffers to resign over past marijuana use: report“). Given the right-wing tabloid nature of the source, I was skeptical but a brief scan revealed that it was just a “re-reporting” of a Daily Beast exclusive (“Biden White House Sandbags Staffers, Sidelines Dozens for Pot Use“).

Dozens of young White House staffers have been suspended, asked to resign, or placed in a remote work program due to past marijuana use, frustrating staffers who were pleased by initial indications from the Biden administration that recreational use of cannabis would not be immediately disqualifying for would-be personnel, according to three people familiar with the situation.

The policy has even affected staffers whose marijuana use was exclusive to one of the 14 states—and the District of Columbia—where cannabis is legal. Sources familiar with the matter also said a number of young staffers were either put on probation or canned because they revealed past marijuana use in an official document they filled out as part of the lengthy background check for a position in the Biden White House.

In some cases, staffers were informally told by transition higher-ups ahead of formally joining the administration that they would likely overlook some past marijuana use, only to be asked later to resign.

“There were one-on-one calls with individual affected staffers—rather, ex-staffers,” one former White House staffer affected by the policy told The Daily Beast. “I was asked to resign.”

“Nothing was ever explained” on the calls, they added, which were led by White House Director of Management and Administration Anne Filipic. “The policies were never explained, the threshold for what was excusable and what was inexcusable was never explained.”

In response to this news story, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted out on Friday an NBC News report from February stating that the Biden administration wouldn’t automatically disqualify applicants if they admitted to past marijuana use. Psaki said of the hundreds of people hired in the administration, only five who had started working at the White House are “no longer employed as a result of this policy.”

The inclusion of the Psaki tweet was appended after I first read the story, which I didn’t blog about because it seemed unbelievable. That is, while I have no doubt that some number of staffers were disqualified during the vetting process, I simply don’t believe the spin that they were told their past drug use would be excused and then had the rug pulled out from under them.

I don’t recall seeing this disclaimer later in the piece upon first read:

Some of these dismissals, probations and remote work appointments could have potentially been a result of inconsistencies that came up during the background-check process, where a staffer could have, for example, misstated the last time they used marijuana. The effect of the policy, however, would be the same: The Biden White House would be punishing various staffers for violating thresholds of past cannabis use that would-be staffers didn’t know about.

But that’s just an absurd take. It’s true that people smoking marijuana in a jurisdiction where it’s legal to do so might not be aware that this could disqualify them for a security clearance. That was the rationale for the waiver. But if they lied about their history of drug use or other potentially-embarrassing conduct on their disclosures, that’s pretty much automatically disqualifying for a security clearance, much less a top-level government post. And I strongly suspect that’s what we’re dealing with here.

CNN‘s version of the story (“White House staffers asked to resign or work remotely after revealing past marijuana use“) hints that is is:

Five people are no longer employed at the White House, while additional staffers are working remotely. In many of the cases involving staffers who are no longer employed, additional security factors were in play, including for some hard drug use, the official said.

While marijuana use is legal in many states, it is still illegal on the federal level, which can present a hurdle in the federal security clearance process.

The White House underscored on Friday that it has eased some restrictions in its security clearance policy to be more lenient about employing individuals with a history of drug use.

[…]

In a statement to CNN, Psaki said: “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.”

One also suspects that Team Biden is bending over backwards to observe the security clearance verification process after the Trump administration so famously flouted it for numerous high-level officials. That’s the right thing to do but it naturally comes at a cost.

Ideally, this will lead to much-needed reform of clearance and other vetting processes. It’s high time we move the clearance process, in particular, out of the 1950s and bring it into sync with the realities of modern life.

FILED UNDER: Drug Policy, Joe Biden, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    What’s “past drug use”? How far back does it go? They practically wouldn’t let people graduate from college during the seventies and eighties unless they’d smoked a joint.

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  2. Teve says:

    Four years ago when I lived in Washington state for six months I got absolutely blasted out of my mind every night on the most potent weed you’ve ever seen. Wanna know what the worst consequence was? A little bit of weight gain from all the Doritos and Netflix.

    So tired of the clueless puritanism on this fairly harmless plant. About 15 years ago alcohol severely damaged my life, and if I hadn’t had a couple of extraordinarily good friends I likely would’ve died a homeless alcoholic. Turns out I have whatever genetic or biological situation it is such that once you start drinking you simply can’t stop until you black out. Growing up I thought it was a little unusual that I saw all my friends’ parents drink beer or wine but I only ever saw my dad have one Miller Light, one time, and one day at a Pizza Hut when I ordered a second beer he looked really bothered. Found out later, turns out his dad was a mean drunk and his granddad was a mean drunk. (I got the drunk part but fortunately not the ‘your kids get taken away from you because you beat them’ part.) All weed ever did to me was make it so that I could watch a TV show two days in a row because I didn’t remember it from the first night.

    While I’m babbling I think I’ll mention some really interesting research I read about a few years ago. Researchers were studying rats and they gave them two levers, if the rat pressed one lever it got alcohol and if it pressed the other lever he got water. They found out that most of the rats would try both levers and then just stick with the water. But about 15% of the rats would keep pressing the alcohol lever until they were dead. What was so curious about that research is that that’s about the same percentage of humans that wind up with alcohol problems. So they speculated that it was something deeply conserved in the mammalian genome.

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  3. CSK says:

    I understand Psaki’s desire to be discreet, but what are the “additional factors at play” in the firings? An arrest record? It would help to know.

    The vagueness of the reasons given for firing people has the potential to discourage a lot of talent from applying for work in the administration. Are you disqualified if you smoked part of a joint at a party freshman year?

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  4. flat earth luddite says:

    Ideally, this will lead to much-needed reform of clearance and other vetting processes. It’s high time we move the clearance process, in particular, out of the 1950s and bring it into sync with the realities of modern life.

    Hate to tell everyone here, but it’s not just Mary Jane.

    The FBI considers anyone who has been arrested on a felony charge to have a criminal record, even if the arrest did not lead to a conviction. The FBI only counts those with a misdemeanor if a state agency asks the bureau to keep it on file.
    So by the FBI’s standard, 73.5 million people in the United States had a criminal record as of June 30.
    The Census Bureau lists the adult population in the United States at 249.4 million. That means the FBI considers about 29.5 percent of adults to have a criminal record.

    Dan Clark, Politifact, 8/18/17

    Yep, that means that almost 30% of adult Americans can’t pass a security screening. And depending on where they live, here’s a partial list of what they can’t do:
    • Vote
    • Qualify for assistance for their kids
    • Pass a background test with an employer
    • Ever hope for a job that pays a living wage
    • Rent an apartment
    • Teach
    • Work with at-risk youth
    • Adopt?
    Nope, you can’t. Because you’re a criminal. Now and forever anon, amen!

    James, I’ve been living with that reality since 1978. 43 freaking years. It was less restrictive prior to 9/11, but over the last 20 years, the screws have increasingly tightened on the security apparatus. The net result is what I’ve described above.

    So no, my surprise isn’t that a handful of Biden’s shining young folks got disqualified and canned, but frankly that so many actually passed a security screening.

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    Look, to work for a Presidential administration, especially a Democratic administration, you need to agree not to smoke weed while you are a federal employee (it’s still a federal crime regardless of what the states do) and disclose past drug use, including marijuana. The Feds are not barring people who have ever smoked pot, not now and not even 25 years ago. But if you swear on background check that you have not smoked pot for five years and then the interview process turns up three people who got high with you last August, then it becomes a huge issue because you lied on your background check.

    A couple years back Jonah Goldberg hired a conservative columnist at The Atlantic. Some offensive past media activity was discovered which lead to great controversy, and Goldberg fired him. Liberals and Conservatives lit into each other and every single one ignored what Goldberg said repeatedly. He didn’t fire the guy because of the past work, and he didn’t fire the guy because he had got so much heat for hiring a conservative. He fired him because he had sat across a table from him and asked, “What in your past writings and personal life might come out and cause grief to The Atlantic?” The guy listed off a bunch of stuff but left out the things that were causing the controversy, and Goldberg didn’t find it credible that the columnist just forgot. He concluded it was a lie and said, many times, that once that trust was gone he couldn’t accept anything the guy said. This made perfect sense to me. Of course I would fire that guy, in a heartbeat. But it seemed immaterial to the chattering classes. I think this case is basically the same.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @CSK:

    The vagueness of the reasons given for firing people has the potential to discourage a lot of talent from applying for work in the administration. Are you disqualified if you smoked part of a joint at a party freshman year?

    That wasn’t disqualifying for a Top Secret (SCI) even in the 1980s, so long as you didn’t lie about it. As best I can tell, even without Presidential waiver, these are the guidelines established in law:

    § 147.10Guideline H—Drug involvement.
    (a) The concern. (1) Improper or illegal involvement with drugs raises questions regarding an individual’s willingness or ability to protect classified information. Drug abuse or dependence may impair social or occupational functioning, increasing the risk of an unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
    (2) Drugs are defined as mood and behavior altering substances, and include:
    (i) Drugs, materials, and other chemical compounds identified and listed in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, as amended (e.g., marijuana or cannabis, depressants, narcotics, stimulants, and hallucinogens),
    (ii) Inhalants and other similar substances.
    (3) Drug abuse is the illegal use of a drug or use of a legal drug in a manner that deviates from approved medical direction.
    (b) Conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying include: (1) Any drug abuse (see above definition);
    (2) Illegal drug possession, including cultivation, processing, manufacture, purchase, sale, or distribution;
    (3) Diagnosis by a credentialed medical professional (e.g., physician, clinical psychologist, or psychiatrist) of drug abuse or drug dependence;
    (4) Evaluation of drug abuse or drug dependence by a licensed clinical social worker who is a staff member of a recognized drug treatment program;
    (5) Failure to successfully complete a drug treatment program prescribed by a credentialed medical professional. Recent drug involvement, especially following the granting of a security clearance, or an expressed intent not to discontinue use, will almost invariably result in an unfavorable determination.
    (c) Conditions that could mitigate security concerns include: (1) The drug involvement was not recent;
    (2) The drug involvement was an isolated or aberration event;
    (3) A demonstrated intent not to abuse any drugs in the future;
    (4) Satisfactory completion of a prescribed drug treatment program, including rehabilitation and aftercare requirements, without recurrence of abuse, and a favorable prognosis by a credentialed medical professional.

    So, mitigation is not that difficult for non-abuse.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    @CSK:

    I understand Psaki’s desire to be discreet, but what are the “additional factors at play” in the firings?

    I don’t know what her desire is, but the law (correctly) says there is very little an employer can discuss publicly about an employee’s specific circumstances. It is reflexive to not go into any details, and if you feel you must say something you should consult a lawyer, who is probably going to say “no” anyway.

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  8. EddieInCA says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Anecdote: I’ve had to do three full FBI background checks. At start of the the first one, I realized immediately that the FBI officer had every small detail of my life on their computer screen as they questioned me. I also quickly realized that they didn’t care about any of it. They were seeing if I would lie about it. So I admired everything that was true. My arrest(s). My pot use. The communist countries I visited (before the wall came down.), etc. I passed the background check with flying colors.

    The hypocrisy of marijuana laws and enforcement is ridiculous. About 10 years ago, I was supplying a steady stream of weed (purchased legally in California) to the members of a Police Department in South Florida. Literally, I was a drug dealer to cops. I made no profit. I sold it to them for what I bought it. But the very guys who were getting weed and gummies and other edibles from me, were busting kids smoking weed while on the job. It was a sick joke.

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  9. EddieInCA says:

    @EddieInCA:

    I admitted, not admired. Ugh.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @flat earth luddite: Really sorry to hear that. What’s bizarre is that, while the SF-86 requires disclosure of all arrests, tickets, etc. aside from minor traffic violations, it also includes spaces to list the adjudication. And it has pages and pages of opportunity to list multiple incidents. I just assumed that an arrest that resulted in no charge or that resulted in acquittal would not be disqualifying.

    @CSK: Looking at the SF-86, the question asked is,

    In the last seven (7) years, have you illegally used any drugs or controlled substances? Use of a drug or controlled substance includes injecting, snorting, inhaling, swallowing, experimenting with or otherwise consuming any drug or controlled substance.

    So, use in high school by someone now 25 wouldn’t need to be disclosed. BUT if someone legally used in Colorado last year, it would have to be disclosed because it’s a crime under federal law. That might indeed be disqualifying, although one would think it could be waived.

  11. mattbernius says:

    @EddieInCA:

    But the very guys who were getting weed and gummies and other edibles from me, were busting kids smoking weed while on the job. It was a sick joke.

    Yup, not to mention a joke that has served to focus policing and incarceration on majority-minority communities. Hell, the move to criminalize marijuana was deeply steeped in racism against both Mexican and Black communities. See for example: https://medium.com/equityorg/reefer-madness-the-racist-roots-of-marijuana-prohibition-37b9e7fb7d6c

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  12. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:
    Thanks very much for the clarification. But again, knowledge of these guidelines doesn’t seem to be widespread. So it’s possible someone might be discouraged.

    @MarkedMan:
    Sure, but the press is full of stories about people who were fired, say, for the racist/misogynistic/homophobic/pornographic things they posted on social media. The employer didn’t have any compunction about publicly explaining why the person was canned.

    3
  13. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @James Joyner:
    Thanks. To me the true tragedy is the fact that, words to the contrary, we are not interested in Rehabilitation, and we are not interested in people being productive members of society. For a significant portion of the population, (particularly if they are black men), they can’t live with their families, they can’t get a good job, they can’t vote, they cannot take meaningful part in society. This is a continuing problem that we ignore at society’s peril. Drug laws are only the very upper tip of the iceberg.

    Remember, the list I gave was partial. And affects up to 30% of adult Americans. Forever. THAT’S what I was railing against. 1500+ words available on topic on request.

    6
  14. MarkedMan says:

    @CSK: Those things are already public, and even then are usually couched in vague language. It’s often something like, “given the circumstances it was agreed that it was impossible to continue on and we agreed to part ways.”

    Peaking could have been more explicit about things in general, but even that carries risks. She would have to be sure that none of her generalizations could be deduced to be about one person in particular. I would be very reluctant to get specific if I was in her shoes. One wrong word and I would be the one who opened us up to a law suit.

  15. Bill says:

    Joe’s trippin’, seriously.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/biden-stumbles-loses-footing-climbing-steps-to-air-force-one/2021/03/19/e5f3e679-f127-4080-8c86-73c6dba33e1a_video.html

    And you wonder why our enemies have no fear of this guy? He makes Gerald Ford look like an acrobat.

  16. Jax says:

    @Bill: The subject of this thread is marijuana use and Biden Administration staff. You have already posted this link over on the open thread. We get it. You’ve fully drunk the Kool-Aid that says Biden is senile, sleepy, etc etc etc. Do you have ANYTHING to contribute to the conversation besides this crap?

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  17. lounsbury says:

    @Bill: Amusingly you are rather proving the opposite of your claim.

    1
  18. inhumans99 says:

    @Jax:

    Also, this stumble of his was noted by the freaking Washington Post, it is not like anyone was trying to hide that this happened, so uh yeah…not sure what point Bill thinks he is making with this story.

    I guess we gave Trump crap when he had the occasional stumble walking down/up a ramp and did a bunch of arm chair diagnoses regarding his health and I guess this is Bill throwing it in our face. Gosh dang, Bill has become a cranky old man, Jeebus. Hard to believe you are the same Bill that would tell us about those crazy stories you write for a living and put up those funny FL headline of the day links.

    1
  19. CSK says:

    @inhumans99:
    It’s two different Bills.

  20. Jax says:

    @inhumans99: If you go back in the archive, this is little b bill, the guy who had a black girlfriend so he couldn’t POSSIBLY be a racist (which I find hard to believe, I’m not sure ANY girls would put up with him). He hasn’t posted much since 2017, now all of a sudden he’s back with the daily “Biden is senile” Trumpie troll crap.

    1
  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Bill: Are you sure that the reason that other leaders have no fear of Biden isn’t because he’s not a crazy f**k who says things like “what’s the point of having nukes if you’re not going to use them?” (Asking for a friend.)

    3
  22. Dale says:

    @Teve:
    Another version of that study was done years later, in which the rats didn’t live in an austere, crappy environment. The researchers made the environment practically rat heaven.

    While rats did occasionally partake of the drugged water, there were very few rats behaving in ways that mimicked addiction.

  23. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: thanks, Cracker. I was too embarrassed to ask out loud.

    1
  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Bill:
    Do you not notice the total lack of traction, dude? No one’s buying your tired drivel. Biden’s beating Covid, standing up up to Trump’s dominatrix Putin, and Goldman Sachs predicts 8% growth. Reality trumps (heh) bullshit. At least for those of us who live in reality.

    3
  25. Bill says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Oh Mike, still in denial that your man is a feeble minded dolt who can’t negotiate stairs let alone global diplomacy? How many gaffes per week is he allowed before his nurses cut him off?

    It’s ok- you’ll figure it out in a bit….and I won’t judge you like I should. That’s why I haven’t chimed in much during the last 4 years of real leadership!

  26. Jax says:

    @Bill: Where, exactly, did he lead us, again? Record unemployment and more dead Americans than several World Wars?

    2
  27. rachel says:

    @Bill: Every single human being has tripped multiple times in their lives, Bill, and the living ones are all going to trip again sometime in the next week or so.

    It comes with being bipeds.

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  28. Andy says:

    Speaking as someone who held a TS clearance for 20+ years and also was responsible for security clearance processing for an 1800 person DoD organization five years ago, I feel pretty confident in saying that past marijuana use was not at all the deciding factor here. Heck, in the early 1990’s when I first joined I smoked quite a lot of pot in college and it wasn’t a problem for my clearance way back then. Past marijuana use is so common today that no one even bats an eye.

    So there is definitely something else going on. And this has affected, according to the quoted report, only five people out of hundreds on the White House staff. the implication that these five were the only people with previous marijuana use, and that was the reason they were let go is laughable. To me, this story smells like sour grapes.

    @CSK:

    I understand Psaki’s desire to be discreet, but what are the “additional factors at play” in the firings? An arrest record? It would help to know.

    She gave the appropriate answer which was that the individuals did not meet the security clearance requirements. She can’t publicize the specifics of why the clearance was not positively adjudicated because that would be illegal.

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  29. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Bill:
    Covfefe.
    Hamburder.
    Person…woman…man…camera…TV…
    “I was down there and I watched our police and our firemen down there on 7/11…”
    ‘Thighland.” (You know, capital Bangkok?)
    “And I met with the president of the Virgin Islands,”

    I could go on. And on and on and on.

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  30. DrDaveT says:

    @Andy:

    Past marijuana use is so common today that no one even bats an eye.

    This.

    Lying, on the other hand — about anything at all — raises all kinds of red flags. You’re filling out the form under oath, and if your word under oath can’t be trusted then no, the US does not wish to entrust you with important secrets. And if you simply don’t get why lying is such a big deal, then the US really does not want to entrust you with important secrets.

    FWIW, there is a parallel situation with mental illness. Having a diagnosed mental illness, for which you have received treatment, is not automatically disqualifying. Lying about that, on the other hand, certainly is.

    1
  31. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Please, Michael. It’s hamberder.

    2
  32. Gavin says:

    I don’t understand why this is an issue. Biden’s staff is what, over a hundred people? And how many got dismissed because they lied on a background check.. 5? I’ll never believe 5 is the total count of his staff who have ever smoked weed.

    The issue, to me, is a lack of understanding of statistics — the Biden staffers who did smoke up and were not fired is substantially more than the ones who were axed. And if anything the secondary story is the lack of suspicion of the first explanation given on the part of stenographers a/k/a/ reporters on this story.

    The ATL policeman who said the kid was “just having a bad day” … was himself having a no-good, very bad day.

    The people asserting they got let go “for smoking weed” .. were likely let go for omitting their weed arrest(s), or worse.

    And the appropriate response to both cases should be “Hmm, that’s interesting – what else can we learn” rather than “Oh, someone said the first thing that entered their head, well that must be the complete truth”.