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Editorial: Federal De-Scheduling of Marijuana will be Good for the National Security Workforce

By: Wayne Rash

On October 6th, President Biden announced three steps to end the “failed approach” to limit marijuana use. In the first two steps, the President announced pardons for all prior Federal offenses of simple marijuana possession and encouraged state governors to do the same for similar offenses in their states. In the third step, President Biden asked the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to review how marijuana is scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act. This is good news for the national security workforce. De-scheduling, or re-scheduling, marijuana would be good for the national security workforce because security clearance holders and potential recruits would have the option to use marijuana.

Executive Order 10450, Security Requirements for Government Employment, states, “The interests of the national security require that all persons privileged to be employed in the departments and agencies of the Government, shall be reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States.” Additionally, within the national security community, the implementing directive, Security Executive Agent Directive 4 “National Security Adjudicative Guidelines” (SEAD 4), prohibits cleared employees from using marijuana, even for medical reasons.

Consider Parker Avery, a national security employee living in California. Parker’s work requires that she maintain a security clearance to access classified national security information. A few months ago, Parker learned she had cancer, and her oncologist recommended chemotherapy. A few months into treatment, Parker feels like a shadow of her former self. She feels drained, exhausted, and nauseous. Parker often vomits and suffers from loss of appetite. Parker’s close friend went through a similar experience and told Parker she used marijuana to dull some of her treatment’s side effects and increase her appetite. Parker wants to try marijuana too. After all, marijuana is legal and widely available in California. But Parker can’t use marijuana and keep her security clearance because marijuana is a schedule 1 controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act and SEAD 4 prohibits the possession or use of any controlled substance. So Parker faces a dilemma; she must pick between her career and her health.

Here, Parker is a fictional person, but her dilemma is very real for individuals who make up the national security workforce. Like the rest of the United States population, some members of the national security workforce have, or will have, chronic health conditions that could benefit from marijuana use. While marijuana may be completely legal in an individual’s state, it remains federally scheduled. Thus marijuana is prohibited for use by federal employees, especially those who require access to classified information. This hurts the national security workforce because experienced employees who wish to use marijuana must leave their employment or use marijuana in secret, risking involuntary separation. Furthermore, the national security workforce is worse off when talented recruits, who wish to continue to use marijuana, are ineligible for a security clearance.

When determining whether an individual is eligible for a security clearance, the Government is concerned about whether the individual can be relied upon and trusted to protect national security. For example, the Government does not want to employ a person who engages in espionage and other disloyal activities or discloses classified national security information without authorization. SEAD 4 outlines the Government’s two-pronged concern about a marijuana user’s “reliability and trustworthiness.” First, the Government is concerned that controlled substance use can cause “physical or mental impairment.” Second, the Government believes the user’s willingness to use a controlled substance “raises questions about an individual’s ability or willingness to comply with laws, rules, and regulations.”

However, the Government’s concern about marijuana’s psychoactive effects is incongruent with its concern about the effects of other, permitted substances. The Government’s focus on impairment suggests it believes that an impaired individual might lose or disclose classified information while under the influence of a controlled substance. Marijuana users experience impairment while under the influence of marijuana. Yet, studies show that individuals under the influence of marijuana are better judges of their own impairment and take fewer risks than individuals under the influence of alcohol. The reduced impairment of an individual’s risk perception suggests that marijuana use presents less risk to national security than alcohol use. Nevertheless, SEAD 4 does not prohibit the use of alcohol, instead focusing only on excessive alcohol use.

The Government’s belief that marijuana users show a propensity for rule-breaking fails to consider that marijuana is legal in nearly all states. The Government’s concern with an “individual’s ability or willingness to comply with laws, rules, and regulations” suggests the Government is contemplating the likelihood that the individual will break other laws and rules. For example, the Government is probably concerned that an individual will break laws prohibiting espionage or rules preventing unauthorized disclosure. However, marijuana use has become generally permitted in most states. Marijuana is legal for medical use in 37 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia (DC). Marijuana is legal for adult recreational use in 19 states and DC. While five more states will vote on legalizing marijuana this November. Nationally, 60% of voters favor the legalization of marijuana in the United States. The near-ubiquitous legality and general acceptance of marijuana use across the United States reflects a low likelihood that marijuana users are inclined to break laws or rules.

The national security community remains one of the few places where marijuana use is prohibited. Consequently, some national security employees are forced to make a tough, unnecessary choice between using beneficial marijuana or maintaining their security clearance. This hurts the national security workforce because experienced employees may leave, and talented recruits may decline employment. A de-scheduling, or re-scheduling, of marijuana, would be good for the national security workforce. Then, security clearance holders and potential recruits could beneficially use marijuana without impacting their careers.

Wayne Rash is a federal employee. His views are not endorsed by nor reflect the views of his employer.


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