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Biden's White House is firing staffers for marijuana use. That's a mistake.

Let's be real: White House staffers drinking is more of a risk than if they're toking.
Photo illustration of marijuana spilling out of an open jar and a the White House in the middle of it.
There's not a nugget of truth in the idea that smoking marijuana is a national security risk.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Hello from liberal bastion New York, which one day in the near future may join the 15 other states that have legalized recreational marijuana. That doesn't include Washington, D.C., which legalized possession of marijuana for recreational use in 2015. But the Biden administration, which as you may know is based in Washington, is reportedly being very un-chill about whether staffers have ever partaken.

The Daily Beast reported Thursday night that "dozens of young White House staffers have been suspended, asked to resign, or placed in a remote work program due to past marijuana use." That's even though some "staffers were informally told by transition higher-ups ahead of formally joining the administration that they would likely overlook some past marijuana use, only to be asked later to resign."

On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki semi-confirmed the report, saying on Twitter: "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." (Note that this phrasing covers only those who have been let go in full, not any who had been suspended or whose cases are still being adjudicated.)

Now, yes, the fact is that marijuana is totally illegal on a federal level — just not in the federal city. But the policy still has reportedly "affected staffers whose marijuana use was exclusive" to places where it is legal. It's a continuation of a trend across the federal government as more states have legalized, in which hitting the blunt while holding a clearance is grounds to have it revoked.

I have yet to see a valid reason that would say that keeping people who smoke any amount of marijuana out of the federal government is a net positive for national security.

So what's the defense for this policy? Well, last month, a White House official said the revised 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."

But there is one problem with that explanation: It makes no sense. I have yet to see a valid reason that would say that keeping people who smoke any amount of marijuana out of the federal government is a net positive for national security.

One of the reasons security clearances go over things like a candidate's personal finances and drug use isn't just to weed out bad people, pun intended. It's to see who might be vulnerable to blackmail by a foreign government to a degree that they might sell out American secrets for cash or to keep from being exposed. Unless the Biden administration is arguing that everyone who had a bong in their California apartment is at risk of turning over the nuclear codes for a dime bag, that seems pretty ridiculous.

In fact, I'd say that in forcing the issue, the administration is opening up more people to potential blackmail. If you've tried to cover up your history from the White House knowing that you'd be let go for having taken part in something legal at the time, that's a pretty big secret to keep. (And lapse of judgment, for that matter.) And big secrets are exactly what foreign recruiters would love to exploit.

Meanwhile, I got curious and went on a hunt to see whether I could find any instances when a major leak or national security breach was tied to a security clearance holder's getting stoned. If anyone reading this is aware of one, let me know, because I came up empty. The closest I found was a wild case in which a defense contractor went into a deep spiral when he lost his security clearance for smoking medically prescribed marijuana in California a few years back. (He lost his clearance even though his assigned security officer initially told him his prescription was fine.)

But you know what has come up time and again when looking at incidents that sparked scandal, a loss of security clearance or both? That drug of choice among good old-fashioned Americans: alcohol. Unlike weed, which is a one-strike-and-you're-out kind of deal, the Defense Department's adjudicative guidelines are pretty lenient when it comes to booze.

Mostly the guidelines frown upon serious alcohol abuse and its consequences, like DUIs and arrests for public intoxication. But as long as you show that you're seeking help, you can still possibly get a clearance.

For the record, I agree that some lenience should be built into the system for people who are struggling but are otherwise trustworthy. But again, let's look back over the last few decades of security service scandals: Secret Service agents' partying in Colombia in 2012, Drug Enforcement Administration agents' partying in 2015 ... also in Colombia, a contractor's plying naval officers with booze and other favors in exchange for security secrets. And yet there are no well-reported instances of, as a hypothetical, an officer's getting stoned and leaving a key briefing in the car he just hotboxed, where it was stolen.

I get that removing marijuana from the federal government's list of Schedule I drugs is up to Congress. And I'm not saying that getting ripped during the workday is advisable, especially if you're in a sensitive position. But the state-level push for legalization is a trend that isn't going to reverse in the meantime, and the executive branch has leeway in terms of determining the standards for its employees. Here's hoping this affair gets the Biden administration to mellow way out.