A key Senate committee approved a measure this week that would prohibit the federal government from denying people the security clearances they need to work at intelligence agencies simply because they’ve used marijuana.
The measure from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) cleared the Senate Intelligence Committee on a voice vote on Wednesday. It is now attached to the Intelligence Authorization Act, which must still move through both chambers before potentially heading to the president’s desk.
If enacted, it would mark a significant development in federal cannabis workplace policies, affecting agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA).
“I applaud the committee for including my provisions, in particular an amendment ensuring that past marijuana use will not disqualify intelligence community applicants from serving their country,” Wyden, who is also working with leadership on a bill to federally legalize cannabis, said in a press release on Thursday. “It’s a common-sense change to ensure the IC can recruit the most capable people possible.”
The cannabis amendment was approved by the committee in an unanimous vote, The Wall Street Journal first reported.
Staff with Wyden’s office told Marijuana Moment that the Intelligence Committee’s rules restrict how the text of legislation within its jurisdiction can be released. It may be a number of weeks before the provisions of the new cannabis amendment are publicly available.
But the brief description of the measure is fairly straightforward, seeking to resolve a hiring policy that lawmakers and even past heads of the intelligence community have described as problematic.
The senator’s press release says the proposal would prohibit “denial of a security clearance to IC personnel based solely on past use of marijuana.”
“Senator Wyden will continue to fight to ensure that ongoing marijuana use is not the basis for denying or losing a clearance,” the release says.
Barring people from receiving security clearances just for being honest about prior marijuana use significantly decreases the pool of potential applicants for critical roles, especially considering that a majority of Americans have tried cannabis at least once and more states have moved to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.
Prior to the House vote to pass a federal marijuana legalization bill in April, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) filed an amendment to require federal agencies to review security clearance denials going back to 1971 and retroactively make it so cannabis could not be used “as a reason to deny or rescind a security clearance.” But that measure was narrowly defeated in a floor vote.
Late last year, the director of national intelligence (DNI) issued a memo saying that federal employers shouldn’t outright reject security clearance applicants over past use and should use discretion when it comes to those with cannabis investments in their stock portfolios.
A spokesperson in the DNI’s office told Marijuana Moment at the time that “increased legalization of marijuana use at state and local levels has prompted questions on how the federal government treats an individual’s involvement with marijuana to determine eligibility for national security positions or access to classified information.”
Meanwhile, FBI updated its hiring policies in 2020 to make it so candidates are only automatically disqualified from joining the agency if they admit to having used marijuana within one year of applying. Previously, prospective employees of the agency could not have used cannabis within the past three years.
Former FBI Director James Comey in 2014 suggested that he wanted to loosen the agency’s employment policies as it concerns marijuana, as potential skilled workers were being passed over due to the requirement.
“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” he said at the time.
Also, in 2020, CIA said that it doesn’t necessarily believe using illegal drugs makes you a bad person.
For its part, the Drug Enforcement Administration continues to enforce its policy of automatically disqualifying applicants who’ve used marijuana in the prior three years before applying.
Federal agencies have taken different approaches to employment policies with the ever-changing marijuana landscape in the U.S.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently reminded its workers that they are prohibited from using marijuana—or directly investing in the industry—regardless of state law and changes in “social norms” around cannabis.
The White House recently made clear that people who want to even intern at the president’s office will be required to disclose prior drug use—including any cannabis consumption that was legal under state law—and they could be denied eligibility over it.
Still, the White House Office of Personnel Management (OPM) separately issued a memo to federal agencies that says admitting to past marijuana use should not automatically disqualify people from being employed in the federal government.
The Biden administration previously found itself facing criticism after reports surfaced that it had fired its own White House staffers over marijuana.
Then-Press Secretary Jen Psaki attempted to minimize the fallout of the White House personnel policy, without much success, and her office also stressed that nobody was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.”
However, she consistently declined to speak to the extent to which staff have been suspended or placed in a remote work program because they were honest about their history with marijuana on the federal background check form.
In May, a congressman sent a letter to the head of the U.S. Department of Transportation, stating that the agency’s policies on drug testing truckers and other commercial drivers for marijuana are unnecessarily costing people their jobs and contributing to supply chain issues.
Relatedly, a top Wells Fargo analyst said in February that there’s one main reason for rising costs and worker shortages in the transportation sector: federal marijuana criminalization and resulting drug testing mandates that persist even as more states enact legalization.
Meanwhile, in April, a top federal health agency proposed changes to drug testing policies for federal workers to clarify that having a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana or any other Schedule I drug is not a valid excuse for a positive drug test.
Also earlier this year, a coalition of more than two dozen congressional Democrats filed bill on promoting workplace investment to combat climate change, and they said they want to boost the workforce nationwide by protecting people in legal marijuana states from being penalized due to federal drug testing policies.
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