The jury is still out on exactly what transpired at the White House at the beginning of March — but the short of it is that according to news reports, dozens of young White House staffers were suspended, asked to resign, or placed on remote work due to their disclosures of past cannabis use.
Some staffers reportedly had been told by the Biden transition team ahead of joining the administration that past cannabis use would be overlooked, only to be asked later to resign after being honest on their background check materials.
What makes this galling to cannabis industry observers, if true, is that the Biden administration had publicly stated weeks before that it would not automatically disqualify staffers for having used cannabis. With Vice President Harris and Transportation Secretary Buttigieg both admitted prior users — Harris publicly stated that cannabis “gives a lot of people joy” during her 2019 presidential campaign — this was an unexpected turn of events even given President Biden’s personal distaste to federal legalization.
The only official comment has come from press secretary Jen Psaki, who stated that five staffers had been terminated, and that “other security issues” factored into the decision. And she also reiterated that cannabis “is still illegal federally.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been pushback from those in Biden’s own party. A coalition of 30 Democratic Representatives sent a letter to Biden criticizing the administration for punishing these staffers. The letter from longtime reform advocate Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon stated that “The American people are demanding a change to punitive and harsh cannabis laws that have always been unequally applied,” and that “While we work to deschedule cannabis legislatively, your administration should act within its power to stop legitimizing unfair cannabis laws.
The letter was cosigned by Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern of Massachusetts, Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez of New York, Barbara Lee of California, Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Don Beyer of Virginia, and 23 other Representatives.
Blumenauer has stated he considers the administration’s actions “antiquated” and inconsistent with the state-level reform movement.
So while the question of who did what remains in limbo, so does the selection process for who will be named White House drug czar (formally, the head of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy.) One often-mentioned name is Rahul Gupta who served as the drug policy lead on the Biden transition team, and is the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board. While he is an advocate for medical cannabis, his views on recreational legislation are not clear.
Gupta, however, is overwhelmingly favored by the industry over a conservative contender, Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, who is co-founder of the anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches To Marijuana. Also reported under consideration are the acting ONDCP deputy director, Regina LaBelle, and former HHS executive H. Westley Clark. Whichever candidate gets the position will be a signal how the Biden administration intends to implement cannabis policy.