Budding Spies Might Not Get Weeded Out for Past Drug Use

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced the provision and applauded its inclusion in the intelligence bill.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced the provision and applauded its inclusion in the intelligence bill. Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images

Activists say this would be a practical step to help ensure all the best candidates are getting considered for intelligence jobs. 

Intelligence agencies would be allowed to hire job candidates who have used marijuana in the past, under a legislative provision being considered in the Senate. 

On Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously approved this provision as part of the 2023 Intelligence Authorization Act. The text of the legislation is not public yet. 

“I applaud the committee for including my provisions, in particular an amendment ensuring that past cannabis use will not disqualify intelligence community applicants from serving their country,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in a statement on Thursday. “It’s a common-sense change to ensure the [intelligence community] can recruit the most capable people possible.”

Ronald Sanders, who previously served as chief human capital officer for the intelligence community and retired in 2010 after 37 years of federal service, said “there are talented people – you want them to work for the federal government and you don’t want past transgressions to get in the way of that. The key word here is ‘past.’”

Sanders — who is now staff director for the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida — said he believes past usage of marijuana should not be a disqualifier to work in the intelligence community. The new policy could be accompanied with drug tests and continuous monitoring to rule out current use, he said. 

“There should be an education campaign that tells students if they expect to get a security clearance they better stop now,” Sanders said. He noted some students and teachers he’s met with “don’t have a clue” about what’s involved with getting hired to sensitive, federal government posts. 

Chris Lindsey, director of government relations at Marijuana Policy Project, said this is a “pragmatic solution for government agencies that increasingly find that federal prohibition policy places them out of step with younger talent.”

Wyden sees that the intelligence agencies “need the best options available when they are looking for talent and sidelining capable people because of unpopular choices in the past isn't sensible,” Lindsey continued. “We hope other agencies can support similar measures."

Morgan Fox, political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the measure “is definitely a step in the right direction.”

Over the last few years there’s been a big push to “adjust those policies for federal employees that live in states where cannabis is legal, despite the fact that it is still illegal at the federal level.” For national security roles, “there is absolutely no reason to deny people security clearances typically because they had cannabis at some point and that’s even more true now that it's legal in a growing number of states.” 

The intelligence agencies and federal government overall are “really robbing themself of a lot of talent,” he added. 

“This is part of a much larger conversation” that is happening across industries, Fox pointed out. 

In recent years there has been some movement by agencies (such as the CIA and FBI) to relax their stance and policies on marijuana use. Then-acting Office of Personnel Management Director Kathleen McGettigan said in guidance in February 2021 that past marijuana use should not automatically disqualify individuals for federal jobs. 

In December, Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, issued an unclassified memo to agency heads, obtained by Government Executive, saying “Prior recreational marijuana use by an individual may be relevant to adjudications [to have access to classified information or eligibility to have a sensitive position], but not determinative.” 

According to Sanders, it is more important to have a law on this policy as opposed to a memo because “it is administratively easier to have it in law than to try to convince a DNI successor that they should continue the practice.” 

The provision is several steps away from becoming law. The full Senate still must pass the overall intelligence bill. Then the House would need to pass a version that also included the changes in policy on past marijuana use, and the president would need to sign it.   

Adam Mazmanian, executive editor of FCW, contributed to this report. 

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