The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The losing fight to keep marijuana smokers out of federal government

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) listens to Corey Barnette describe processes at District Growers in Washington in 2019. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The good news for members of President Biden’s administration is that not everyone who has at some point in his or her life smoked marijuana will be ousted. If that were the standard in the Biden White House, it would be a bit of a problem: he’d have to find a new vice president.

For those somewhat lower in the org chart, though, things appear to be a bit more fraught. The Daily Beast reported on Thursday that the administration had begun asking for the resignations of staffers who’d admitted to using marijuana in the past, a deviation from the expectations Biden’s team had originally established. White House press secretary Jen Psaki later indicated that only five people had been booted from the administration, though it’s not clear how many people weren’t hired due to the policy.

Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, which certainly plays a role in the administration’s position. But it’s increasingly obvious that such prohibitions are untenable over the long term, almost as surely as past social-media hiccups will increasingly be glossed over in the future. It’s simply too prevalent to serve as a future disqualifier, even if the federal prohibition remains.

A Gallup poll conducted in 2019 found that nearly as much of the population admitted to smoking marijuana as said they had smoked a cigarette in the prior week. About 1-in-8 Americans smoke marijuana according to that Gallup poll, some 40 million people. To the above point, they tend to skew younger, with more than a fifth of those under the age of 30 saying that they were marijuana smokers.

Central to the debate is that, for many Americans, smoking marijuana is perfectly legal. While relatively few states have legalized recreational marijuana, they include California, a state which by itself is home to 1-in-8 Americans. A review of state laws from the National Conference of State Legislatures suggests that about a third of the country lives in a state (or D.C.) where recreational marijuana use is legal. For another 22 percent of the country, recreational use is decriminalized to some extent. (In Nebraska, first-time possession is decriminalized.)

Doing some easy math, we see that half the country lives in a place where smoking marijuana is either legal or doesn’t result in criminal punishment.

The trend in recent years has been for an expansion of the legality of marijuana, not a constriction. In other words, it’s likely that over the next several years, more states will legalize the use of marijuana, increasing the likelihood that Americans will have legally used the drug. (There have been speed bumps: A referendum legalizing pot in South Dakota last year was deemed unconstitutional by a court in that state.)

If the federal government legalizes marijuana, the game changes entirely. It’s not impossible, certainly. Vice President Harris advocated for decriminalization during the presidential race. Gallup had support for legalizing marijuana at 68 percent last November, the sort of support that will make legislators from both sides of the aisle eager to deliver some sort of policy.

Broad public support for a policy is obviously no guarantee that it will become law. What’s more, it is certainly possible to grow into adulthood even in a state where marijuana is legal without partaking. It is also the case that many 18-year-olds in states where marijuana is legal to consume will be less conscientious about their future career plans than the immediate benefits of adulthood.

“Teenage boys are frequently confused,” one prominent Washingtonian once said by way of describing a tumultuous period in which he himself had used marijuana — and harder drugs.

That, of course, was Barack Obama, Biden’s former boss.