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Five staffers let go over marijuana use, White House says

The firings came despite the Biden administration's efforts to balance federal hiring guidelines with state legalization laws.
Image: Young cannabis plants inside a grow room in Leamington, Ontario, Canada
Young cannabis plants inside a grow room in Leamington, Ontario, Canada, on Jan. 13, 2021.Annie Sakkab / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration said Friday that it had terminated five White House staffers over marijuana use as it tries to balance federal law and hiring guidelines with the drug's legalization in numerous states.

"We announced a few weeks ago that the White House had worked with the security service to update the policies to ensure that past marijuana use wouldn’t automatically disqualify staff from serving in the White House," White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted, linking an initial NBC News report on the changed guidelines. "As a result, more people will serve who would not have in the past with the same level of recent drug use."

"The bottom line is this: 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,” she wrote.

Several others with a history of cannabis use are working remotely while they undergo suitability reviews, the White House acknowledged.

Psaki's statement came after a report in the Daily Beast citing three people familiar with the situation said dozens of White House staffers had been suspended, asked to resign, or placed in a remote work program because of past marijuana use.

The numbers provided by the White House indicate the problem is not that widespread, but also show the difficulty of trying to navigate conflicting laws and regulations regarding past marijuana use.

NBC News first reported the White House's efforts to tackle the problem last month, when the administration issued new hiring guidelines aimed at bridging the federal-state divide.

After what one official described as “intensive consultation with security officials” and the personnel security division, the White House said it would, on a case-by-case basis, waive a requirement that potential appointees in the Executive Office of the President be eligible for top-secret clearance.

Officials said a waiver would only be granted to those who had used marijuana on a “limited” basis and who are in positions that do not ultimately require a security clearance.

Those granted waivers have to agree to cease all marijuana use 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, although many staffers have been working remotely because of coronavirus restrictions anyway.

A White House official told NBC News last month 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.”

The White House on Friday would not specify how many waivers have been granted to date. There are about 500 White House jobs in total, although most of those employees actually work in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Psaki said the White House "worked in coordination with the security service to ensure that more people have the opportunity to serve than would not have in the past with the same level of recent drug use. 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.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement, “What’s happening now is a vivid illustration of unrealistic, unfair, and out of touch cannabis policies. 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."

He said he hopes the administration figures out "a path forward that is fair and realistic."

Aaron Smith, chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said the White House's actions are sending "the wrong message to federal personnel managers, as well as policymakers and employers across the country.”

“Three of the last five presidents — including the current president’s former boss — have admitted to consuming cannabis,” Smith said. “The idea that past use would make a person unfit for service in the White House or ineligible for a security clearance is laughable.”

The White House has made clear that drug use beyond cannabis, or more extensive cannabis use, would not meet the criteria for obtaining a waiver.

In the majority of the cases where individuals are no longer employed in the White House, there were additional security factors at play, including previous hard drug use, a source familiar with the matter said. Misrepresenting drug history in White House paperwork or interviews with security personnel could be a factor that would lead someone to be deemed as not suitable for a security clearance.

Alicia Victoria Lozano contributed.