Democratic lawmakers urge Biden to loosen White House’s pot use policies

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers asked President Joe Biden in a letter Thursday to stop punishing staffers in his administration who have reportedly been suspended, asked to resign or pushed into remote work after revealing past marijuana use.

But the White House is pushing back, saying its stance on prior pot use is significantly “more permissive” than past administrations, including former President Barack Obama’s.

The letter to Biden from Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, a longtime advocate for reforming U.S. marijuana policy, expressed dismay following reports of staffers facing consequences “after honestly disclosing past cannabis use” during their background checks.

“We ask that you clarify your employment suitability policies, remove past cannabis use as a potential disqualifier, and apply these policies with consistency and fairness,” the letter said.

It was signed by 29 other House Democrats, including Don Beyer of Virginia, New York’s Mondaire Jones, Barbara Lee of California, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Joaquin Castro of Texas.

The letter cited a Daily Beast report last week, which said “dozens” of young White House staffers had been sidelined or asked to resign. That report came weeks after administration officials said the White House would not automatically disqualify staffers for past marijuana use.

But a White House official told CNBC that no staffers have been fired due to pot use from “years ago” or from “casual or infrequent use” in the past 12 months.

“The Biden White House has been more permissive than past administrations on past marijuana use,” the official said.

Former President Donald Trump’s White House, for instance, did not allow any past marijuana use over the prior year, and Obama’s required no pot use for the previous six months, according to the official.

The policy change under Biden “has allowed around a dozen White House staff to continue serving in the administration who would not have been permitted under prior administrations’ policies,” the official said.

When asked about the policy Wednesday at a press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted that while marijuana use is legal in a growing number of states, “It is still illegal federally.”

She added that, of the five people who are no longer at the White House due to the pot-use policies, “a number of them” had “other security issues that were raised.”

Potential appointees for roles in the Executive Office of the President — especially younger applicants — have run into issues due to “occasional marijuana use,” the White House official told CNBC. The Biden White House approved an exemption from the requirement that staffers in that office be “Top Secret-eligible,” the official said.

To qualify for that exemption, staffers have to stop using marijuana and pledge not to partake while in government service, while being subject to random drug testing.

Around a dozen staffers are currently working remotely “until they have met the standards to be eligible for a security clearance,” the official said.

Blumenauer’s letter, meanwhile, said that “the existing policies have been applied in inconsistent and unfair ways.”

The letter highlighted the fact that Vice President Kamala Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and former President Barack Obama have all admitted to past cannabis use.

“Those in the upper ranks of your administration won’t face consequences for their cannabis use, and nor should they, but the same standard should be applied across the administration,” the letter said. 

“Repercussions for cannabis use have always been unequal and those with the most power have always faced the fewest consequences,” the Democrats wrote. “We ask that you don’t allow that pattern to continue within your administration.”

The letter urged the administration to “act within its power to stop legitimizing unfair cannabis laws.”

“You have previously expressed your commitment to decriminalizing cannabis in acknowledgement that a cannabis conviction or even the stigma of cannabis use can ruin lives and prevent people from voting, gaining employment, and contributing to society,” the Democrats wrote.

“You can meet this moment and help end our failed punitive policy of cannabis prohibition.”

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