Joe Biden’s White House won’t judge you if you smoked weed before you applied for a job within the administration. President Joe Biden’s team sent out new hiring guidelines re-specifying that recreational marijuana use won’t bar anyone from the position. Cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, so it was viewed as a potential bar from security clearance, particularly for younger and newer employees. That’s at the recommendation of the Office of Personnel Management.

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“OPM’s suitability regulations regarding illegal drug use do not permit agencies to automatically find individuals unsuitable for federal service on the basis of marijuana use prior to appointment,” the office states. That applies even if the use of marijuana was technically illegal at the time.

The New Guidelines

The White House says that applicants will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and can ask for individual waivers. The Personnel Security Division and security officials will convene and decide whether that specific candidate should remain eligible for Top Secret security clearance. Only people who used marijuana on an infrequent basis would be considered.

The main note though is that the only positions the waiver could apply to are those where a Top Secret clearance isn’t ultimately necessary. The White House has tiers of clearances. People applying for positions lower on the totem pole whose security clearance doesn’t need to reach the top level are the only ones eligible for the waiver. Those new guidelines were released very shortly after the current director for the Office of Personnel Management, Kathleen McGettigan, released a memorandum about a similar topic.

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On February 25th, McGettigan told the heads of other executive branch departments and agencies that they should consider certain criteria suggestions regarding the evaluation of new hires. “Nearly half (49%) of surveyed American adults say they have used marijuana, according to SAMHSA’s 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

As more state laws have changed, federal agencies are increasingly encountering individuals whose knowledge, skills, and abilities make them well-qualified for a position, but whose marijuana use may or may not be of concern when considering the suitability or fitness of the individual for the position,” the memorandum reads.

The Vetting Process at the White House

Any person appointed for a White House staff position goes through a vetting process where officials figure out whether that person would have a chance of obtaining a security clearance. Because of that, anyone filling out an application has to honestly answer questions about their past drug use. That’s where the Personnel Security Division would figure out exactly how often the applicant has dabbled in marijuana use.

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“The nature and seriousness of the use and the nature of the specific position for which the person is applying are also likely to be important considerations,” explained McGettigan. Next, the office puts a stop to that use. Anyone who is granted a waiver must agree that they will not use cannabis again while employed by the government.

To ensure people adhere to the waiver, anyone who makes that promise must also agree to random drug testing. Finally, any employee who is granted a waiver has to work remotely for a while after their last date of marijuana use. The White House didn’t specify how long that remote-work mandate would remain in effect.

McGettigan says she is responsible for ensuring what determines an employee’s suitability and the minimum character standards for hires. Since that recommendation says applicants should be considered on a case-by-case basis, it also lists the qualities of the applicants’ marijuana use that officials should consider:

  •         The nature of the position for which the person is applying or in which the person is employed;
  •         The nature and seriousness of the conduct;
  •         The circumstances surrounding the conduct;
  •         The recency of the conduct;
  •         The age of the person at the time of the conduct;
  •         Contributing societal conditions;
  •         The absence or presence of rehabilitation or efforts toward rehabilitation.

Why the Guidelines Were Updated

NBC News first reported this story, in which an unnamed White House official described the process and the reason for instituting the guidelines. “[The guidelines] 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,” Mike Memoli with NBC quotes the official as saying.

“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. 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.”

The Debate Over the Impact of the Change

After seeing the NBC article that broke the story about the Biden White House, Kate Shaw, a contributor for ABC and former lawyer for the Obama Administration, noted the story is not necessarily all that new. “This framing is so weird,” Shaw wrote on Twitter. Limited previous marijuana use has NOT been categorically disqualifying for either White House employment or a TS clearance for a very long time.”

Another Twitter user, Gretchen Lewis, responded, “I worked in the Carter WH. Pretty sure if you weren’t current active user (I was 29), just being honest wasn’t a problem. I mean, even Carter’s sons smoked. I got clearance.” Currently, recreational marijuana is legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia; another 21 allow medical marijuana.

All 50 states allow the use of cannabidiol (CBD) extract. The Office of Personnel Management is also responsible for maintaining a drug-free workplace in the federal government. The OPM considers it “contrary to the efficiency of service” to use drugs, so the Office finds drug users unsuitable for position in the Federal Government.

“As such, 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,” the Office explains. However, the Office maintains it won’t discipline employees who reach out for help, counseling, or rehabilitation and later cease use of the drug.