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Past marijuana use won't automatically disqualify Biden White House staff

Though pot use is legal in a growing number of cities and states, it's still illegal under federal law and is therefore a potentially disqualifying factor in obtaining security clearances.
Image: Inside America's First Cannabis Cafe
A customer smokes marijuana at the Lowell Cafe, a new cannabis lounge in West Hollywood, California, on Oct. 1, 2019.Kyle Grillot / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is issuing new guidelines Friday meant to address an unexpected hurdle it faced as it aimed to quickly fill key White House positions: recreational marijuana use.

Though marijuana use is legal in a growing number of cities and states, it's still illegal under federal law and is therefore a potentially disqualifying factor in obtaining security clearances. Transition officials quickly identified recreational marijuana use as a potential hurdle for applicants, especially younger ones, in meeting that requirement.

After what one official described as “intensive consultation with security officials” and the Personnel Security Division, the White House will now, on a case-by-case basis, waive a requirement that potential appointees in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) be eligible for a “Top Secret” clearance. Officials said a waiver would only be granted to those who have used marijuana on a “limited” basis and who are in positions that don’t ultimately require a security clearance.

A White House official emphasized that the policy applies only to marijuana use. And even under the new policy, some appointees would still not be granted a waiver given the extent of their acknowledged marijuana use.

Four states voted last November to join 11 others and Washington, D.C., in sanctioning recreational marijuana use among adults, while nearly three dozen states permit medical marijuana use.

But marijuana continues to be categorized as a controlled substance under federal law and applications for even minimal security clearances require individuals to answer specific questions about any past drug use. Not all White House staff ultimately obtain a security clearance, but all appointees must go through a vetting process that includes determining whether they are at least eligible for one.

Any individual granted that waiver must, in turn, agree to cease all use of marijuana for the entirety of their government service and agree to random drug testing. Those employees would also be required to work remotely for an unspecified period following their last acknowledged use of marijuana.

A White House official said that the new guidelines would “effectively protect our national security while modernizing policies to ensure that talented and otherwise well-qualified applicants with limited marijuana use will not be barred from serving the American people.”

“President Biden is committed to bringing the best people into government — especially the young people whose commitment to public service can deepen in these positions and who can play leadership roles in our country for decades to come,” a White House official said in a statement to NBC News. “The White House’s policy will maintain the absolute highest standards for service in government that the President expects from his administration, while acknowledging the reality that state and local marijuana laws have changed significantly across the country in recent years.”

A White House official declined to specify how many potential appointees would have been otherwise disqualified from employment— only that the issue of marijuana use affected enough applicants that the administration decided to undergo a thorough review of existing policies.

The White House’s revised policy comes just days after the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management issued a memorandum to other executive branch department and agency heads outlining criteria they should consider when evaluating potential new hires.

“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,” Kathleen McGettigan wrote. “The nature and seriousness of the use and the nature of the specific position …. Are also likely to be important considerations.”

In his 2020 campaign, Biden proposed automatically expunging all prior cannabis use convictions. But he did not go as far as some of his Democratic primary rivals in calling for federally decriminalizing marijuana, calling it a decision for states.