As President Biden presses ahead with his agenda, Republicans are turning more attention to immigration and “cancel culture” — a 21st-century retrofit of the so-called culture wars, which Republicans often use to retain support when their party is out of power in Washington.
But within the White House, the Biden administration has a culture war of its own on its hands. And it’s left many of the president’s political allies scratching their heads.
On Friday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, confirmed that five staff members had lost their jobs because they used marijuana in the past — even though the administration had previously told incoming staffers that prior use of cannabis wouldn’t immediately disqualify them. A number of other staff members remain employed on a work-from-home basis while their history of marijuana use is evaluated.
It came as a surprise to many proponents of marijuana legalization, which is now more popular than ever before. Mr. Biden has long been relatively conservative when it comes to drug policy, and he has never endorsed full legalization, but his plans for criminal-justice reform include the decriminalization of marijuana and a number of other policies to de-escalate the war on drugs, which is in its 50th year.
Udi Ofer, the director of the justice division at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that punishing White House staff members for past pot use sent a confusing signal. “Americans overwhelmingly support marijuana legalization, yet these types of punitive practices by employers — let alone the White House — perpetuate a failed war on marijuana,” he said in an interview. “Marijuana possession continues to be the No. 1 arrest in America, year after year, and it’s these types of wrongheaded employer policies that perpetuate this.”
Last year, Gallup found that Americans backed marijuana legalization by more than two to one, the highest level of support on record. Sixty-eight percent of the country favored legalization, while just 32 percent were against it.
The level of support was about even between white and nonwhite respondents. Even Republicans were about evenly divided — with 48 percent in favor and 52 percent against — while sentiment among Democrats was overwhelming: More than four in five supported it.
“Arguably, the Biden administration has missed an important opportunity here,” said Eli Lehrer, the president of the conservative-leaning R Street Institute, which supports drug-law reform. “Like any administration, they do need to have consistent policies. And rewriting things willy-nilly is difficult. On the other hand, the tide very clearly is turning in the direction of legalization.”
“The culture war over this issue has definitely moved on,” he said. “Even among Republicans, you’re getting very close to a majority supporting legalization outright.”
Recreational marijuana use is now legal in 14 states, as well as the nation’s capital. Some states and municipalities have even made it illegal for employers to consider past marijuana use in pre-employment screenings, as the Biden administration has done.
A Nevada law that took effect last year prevents companies from considering a pre-employment test result for marijuana use; in New York City, a new law disallows employers from doing pre-employment marijuana tests. Those laws don’t apply to positions where safety may be a concern, or to jobs tied to federal programs that require drug testing.
The White House downplayed the layoffs, which were first reported in The Daily Beast last week. “The bottom line is this,” Ms. Psaki wrote on Twitter on Friday. “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.”
Ms. Psaki emphasized that the administration had overhauled previous hiring standards to allow for more leniency. “As a result, more people will serve who would not have in the past with the same level of recent drug use,” she said.
The Daily Beast also reported that the White House had forced out, suspended or reassigned dozens of staff members as a result of marijuana use, but two people close to the situation told The Times last week that was not the case. In an interview, a senior White House official put the number closer to a dozen.
Still, the White House’s continued treatment of cannabis use as a firing offense puts it out of step with both public opinion and developments at the state level.
Although using a small amount of marijuana for recreational purposes remains a federal misdemeanor — and rises to a felony after the first offense — legalization efforts have crept even into deeply red states. Voters in South Dakota recently passed a measure allowing recreational use. In North Dakota, Republican lawmakers are moving ahead with legislation that would do the same.
When she was in the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris was a leading proponent of marijuana legalization and sponsored a bill that would have taken cannabis off the list of Schedule I drugs, where it sits alongside heroin and cocaine. Mr. Biden has been less proactive about marijuana reform, but on the campaign trail he did endorse decriminalizing it. He has not specifically come out for or against the war on drugs, which he helped wage as a senator — instead preferring to frame things around criminal justice reform and the opioid crisis.
Mr. Ofer, of the A.C.L.U., said that it was within Mr. Biden’s executive powers to remove marijuana from Schedule I.
“I understand that the new administration comes in inheriting past practices by past federal agencies,” he said. “But it would be one thing if the White House came out with a position that said: ‘We don’t believe in these policies — we believe that people should not be punished for past marijuana use. It’s going to take us some time to go through the process of changing these policies, but here is where we stand.’”
“If that was their posture, they wouldn’t be facing criticism from the civil rights community; but that’s not their posture,” he said. “So let’s start by getting clear on where President Biden stands on legalizing marijuana. And then let’s get clear on how he’s moving forward.”