Defense Secretary says Pentagon should relax when it comes to hiring marijuana users

At TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF event on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the military should be more flexible about hiring people who’ve previously used marijuana or other federally illegal drugs.

As first reported by Marijuana.com, Carter was responding to a hypothetical question about whether he’d be able or willing to hire someone who “[partook] in some goodies” at Burning Man in the interest of hiring qualified engineers.

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While Carter qualified that “it depends what the goodies are,” he continued, “It’s a very good question and we are changing that, in recognition of the fact that times change and generations change and by the way, laws change as respect to marijuana.”

Carter then indicated that in recognition of changing times, as a necessity the Pentagon needed to be more flexible when it came to hiring former marijuana users.

“In that and many other ways, we need to, while protecting ourselves and doing the appropriate things to make sure that it’s safe to entrust information with people, we need to understand — and we do — the way people [and] lives have changed, not hold against them things that they’ve done when they were younger.”

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“It’s an important question and the answer is yes, we can be flexible in that regard, and we need to,” he concluded.

While the question posed was whether someone who used drugs at Burning Man a few weeks ago would be eligible, Carter’s comments about considering people who imbibed “when they were younger” raises questions about when someone could have last used a drug such as marijuana and still be considered, in Carter’s hypothetical scenario.

Still, Carter’s response might be a sign of changing attitudes in the Pentagon, and an acknowledgement of the growing difficulty posed for the government in recruiting top talent, especially in the face of a widening chasm between liberalized state drug laws and the official federal line.

“It’s an important question and the answer is yes, we can be flexible in that regard, and we need to.”

Carter’s comments aren’t the first to acknowledge the struggle. In July of last year, a report from the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Justice found that the FBI’s extensive background check process and drug use stipulations, which prohibit marijuana use within three years and other drugs within 10 years, made recruitment and retention of cyber personnel difficult. And in 2014, FBI director James Comey joked that he couldn’t hire qualified applicants because of the agency’s strict drug policy.

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“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” Comey said.

Comey, however, backtracked on the joke two days later when pressed in a Senate hearing by staunch marijuana opponent Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Al), saying that he was “dead set” against marijuana and had no intention of changing the ban.

Marijuana remains a schedule I drug at the federal level, the most restrictive of the five designations under the Controlled Substances Act. That means that marijuana is officially more restricted than substances such as cocaine, opium poppy, morphine, and codeine, all of which are highly addictive. In August, the Obama Administration announced changes to make research on marijuana easier to do for scientists, but kept it at Schedule I .

Meanwhile, half of U.S. states plus Washington D.C. have voted to legalize medical marijuana, and including D.C., five have also approved it for recreational use.

Source: Marijuana Policy Project — CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/MPP
Source: Marijuana Policy Project — CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/MPP

The federal law, however, means that when it comes to government employees and members of the military, abstinence remains the official line no matter if the drug is legal in a certain state or not. In 2014, the director of the National Intelligence Agency circulated a stern memo saying that agencies “continue to to be prohibited from granting or renewing a security clearance to an unlawful user of a controlled substance, which includes marijuana,” and in 2015 after voters in Washington D.C. voted to legalize marijuana, the Office of Personnel Management issued a familiar warning: state-level legislative changes had no effect on the federal law prohibiting marijuana as a Schedule I drug.

So despite Carter’s recognition of the need for “flexibility” to ensure that the government can hire the best people for the job, marijuana use is likely to remain a sticking point for the military and federal agencies until it’s reclassified.