FBI Revisits Policy on Drug Use
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
The FBI, famous for its strait-laced crime-fighting image, is considering whether to relax its hiring rules over how often applicants could have used marijuana or other illegal drugs earlier in life.
Some senior FBI managers have been frustrated that they could not hire applicants who acknowledged occasional marijuana use in college but who in some cases already perform top-secret work at other government agencies, such as the CIA or the State Department.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III will make the final decision. "We can't say when or if this is going to happen, but we are exploring the possibility," spokesman Stephen Kodak said.
The change would ease limits about how often -- and how many years ago -- applicants for jobs such as intelligence analysts, linguists, computer specialists, accountants and others had used illegal drugs.
Current rules prohibit the FBI from hiring anyone who used marijuana in the past three years or more than 15 times ever. They also ban anyone who used other illegal drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, in the past 10 years or more than five times.
The rules, however, would not be relaxed for FBI special agents, the fabled "G-men" who conduct most criminal and terrorism investigations. The new plan would continue to ban current drug use.
The nation's former anti-drug director said he understands the FBI's dilemma. "The integrity of the FBI is a known national treasure that must be protected," said retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who ran the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Clinton administration. "But there should be no hard and fast rule that suggests you can't ever have used drugs. As long as it's clear that's behind you and you're overwhelmingly likely to remain drug-free, you should be eligible."
The new FBI proposal would judge applicants based on their "whole person" rather than limiting drug-related experiences to an arbitrary number. It would consider the circumstances of an applicant's previous drug use, such as the person's age, and the likelihood of future use. The relaxed standard already is in use at most other U.S. intelligence agencies.
The FBI proposal contrasts with the agency's starched image and its drug-fighting history. A generation of video game players can remember seeing the FBI seal and the slogan "Winners don't use drugs," attributed to then-FBI Director William S. Sessions, on popular arcade games from the late 1980s.
Private companies have wrestled with the same problem. Employers complain that they can't afford to turn away applicants because of marijuana use that ended years earlier, said Robert Drusendahl, owner of Pre-Check Co. in Cleveland, which performs background employment checks for private companies. "The point is, they can't fill those spots," he said. "This is a microcosm of what's happening outside in the rest of the world."
A recently retired FBI polygraph examiner, Harold L. Byford of El Paso, was quoted in a federal lawsuit in February 2002 arguing that "if someone has smoked marijuana 15 times, he's done it 50 times. . . . If I was running the show there would be no one in the FBI that ever used illegal drugs!"
The proposed FBI change also reflects cultural and generational shifts in attitudes toward marijuana and other drugs, even as the Bush administration has sought to prove links between terrorists and narcotics.
Marijuana remains the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States, with about half of teenagers trying the drug before they graduate from high school.
"What people did when they were 18 or 21, I think that is pretty irrelevant," said Richard A. Clarke, a former top White House counterterrorism adviser. "We have to recognize there are a couple of generations now who regarded marijuana use, while it's technically illegal, as nothing more serious than jaywalking."
Even the Drug Enforcement Administration, which will not hire applicants as agents who used illegal drugs, makes exceptions for admitting "limited youthful and experimental use of marijuana."
"Recreational marijuana use is a fact of life nowadays," said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who has represented people rejected for FBI jobs over drugs. "It doesn't stop Supreme Court justices from getting on the bench and doesn't stop presidents from getting elected, so why should it stop someone from getting hired by the FBI?"