The tradition of treating past cannabis use as a terminable offense leaves the Biden administration out of step with public opinion.
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.”