Marijuana became legal in the District of Columbia this morning, but federal-workforce rules remain unchanged for the roughly half million U.S. government employees and military personnel who live in the area.
Since 12:01 a.m., local authorities have allowed anyone 21 and older to possess up to 2 ounces of pot, although the drug is still prohibited on federally administered properties such as the National Mall, Rock Creek Park and even public housing.
Despite the new policy, which came from a voter-approved initiative in November, the U.S. government still considers marijuana to be an illegal drug and expects its civilian and military personnel to abide by federal guidelines.
“You can’t commit federal crimes and work for the federal government, and having pot is a federal crime,” said Cheri Cannon, a former ethics attorney for the Air Force and Small Business Administration who now practices at a private D.C. firm. “As an employee of the federal government, you have to be beyond reproach.”
A 1986 executive order from President Ronald Reagan requires the federal workplace and workforce to be drug-free. It includes especially strict rules for personnel who either hold security clearances or apply for them.
According to a recent memo from Edwards Air Force Base, the 1986 directive “expressly states that use of illegal drugs on or off duty by federal employees in positions with access to sensitive information may pose a serious risk to national security and is inconsistent with the trust placed in such employees as servants of the public.”
Cannon said most random and routine drug testing within the federal workforce occurs with jobs related to national security and law enforcement, while other employees are generally tested only when supervisors have reasonable suspicion that they’re using drugs at work.
“I can’t remember any time where I saw a federal employee impaired like that on the job,” Cannon said. “Use of pornography is a more common disciplinary issue.”
She added that alcohol abuse among junior enlisted troops was also among the most common problems she encountered.
Even outside the federal workforce, the U.S. government has refused to relax its marijuana regulations. For instance, medical pot has been legal in the District of Columbia and several states for years, but the Department of Veterans Affairs will not prescribe the drug or complete paperwork for patients to enroll in state marijuana programs.
A growing number of military veterans have lobbied the VA to prescribe medical marijuana for post-traumatic stress and physical pain, according to a recent Washington Post article. The VA so far has not relaxed its rules.
* Eric Yoder contributed to this report