A day after The Daily Beast reported on the White House disqualifying would-be staffers over past marijuana use, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were already signaling disapproval and potential investigations into the policy.
“I want to find out how and why this happened, and obviously I’m going to urge them to change course,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told The Daily Beast on Friday.
Huffman said most of America had “evolved beyond Jeff Sessions’ reefer madness hysteria,” and he noted that medical or recreational cannabis was now legal in most states and in DC. “This administration promised a more enlightened approach, but somewhere along the line they reverted to the dogma,” he said.
The White House said in February that admitting to past marijuana use on background check forms would not automatically disqualify candidates for White House jobs. But several knowledgeable sources told The Daily Beast that dozens had been fired, placed on probation, or put in a remote-work program because they had acknowledged previous drug use.
Late Thursday night, Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer (who in the past has separately handled FOIA litigation for certain news outlets, including The Daily Beast), said in a brief interview that he’d been contacted by multiple people on the Biden staff to discuss this issue.
“I can say more than one individual has now been burned by the bureaucratic realities of entering government service in the Biden administration,” Moss said. However, he added, “At this time, we are not involved in any type of [legal] proceeding tied to this specific issue for a Biden staffer.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted Friday that 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.”
But she didn’t address claims that dozens more had been prevented from ever joining the White House after they acknowledged past marijuana use.
“In an effort to ensure that more people have an opportunity to serve the public, we 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,” Psaki told The Daily Beast Friday. “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.”
Those explanations don’t seem to have satisfied lawmakers.
“What’s happening now is a vivid illustration of unrealistic, unfair, and out-of-touch cannabis policies,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told The Daily Beast. “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. This is an opportunity for the Biden administration to help end the failed War on Drugs and make a more rational policy for everyone.”
Blumenauer continued that the direction of marijuana laws in America indicated that it was becoming more legal, not less, and that he hoped the Biden White House would figure out a path forward that is “fair and realistic.”
“In the meantime, these young people should not be singled out and discriminated against for something that is legal in much of the country and supported by the vast majority of Americans,” he said.
Other Democrats focused on how this policy might disproportionately affect minority staffers and effectively make the White House less diverse.
“This is an absurd policy that will block law abiding people—particularly people of color—from pursuing careers in public service,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) told The Daily Beast. “It’s all the more unjust that many of these staffers applied for their security clearances with the understanding that past marijuana use would not be held against them.”
A major part of the controversy over the White House’s policy is its reversal. Telling potential staffers that disclosing past marijuana use wouldn’t be disqualifying, and then using those disclosures to disqualify staff, seems to be manifestly unfair. And lawmakers seem to have taken particular offense at the possibility that staffers could have been using marijuana legally, and then punished for that by the White House.
“This is yet another reason why the federal government needs to catch up with the 36 states, four territories, and the District of Columbia that have already legalized cannabis use in some form,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said Friday. “People who legally use cannabis and choose to serve in the federal government shouldn't be punished for the government's own archaic laws. It's time for the Luddites to join us in the 21st century.”