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Sunday, April 30, 2023

Needing Younger Workers, Federal Officials Relax Rules on Past Drug Use - The New York Times

Needing Younger Workers, Federal Officials Relax Rules on Past Drug Use

As more states legalize marijuana and competition for talent grows fiercer, the U.S. government is loosening guidelines from the “Just Say No” era.

A man clutches a pull-up bar, holding his feet off the floor at a military recruiting center.
An Armed Forces Career Center in Fountain, Colo.Michael Ciaglo for The New York Times

Not long ago, urinating in a cup for a drug test was a widely accepted, if annoying, requirement to start a new job. The legalization of marijuana in more and more states in recent years upended that, prompting many employers to shelve hiring rules from the “Just Say No” era.

There was a major holdout: the federal government, by far the nation’s largest employer. But now, it too is significantly relaxing drug screening rules as agencies struggle to replenish the ranks of a rapidly aging work force in a tight job market.

During the past five years, the United States military gave more than 3,400 new recruits who failed a drug test on their first day a grace period to try again, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Agencies like the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. have adopted more lenient rules regarding past use of marijuana among job candidates, officials acknowledge.

And later this year, the Biden administration is expected to take another major step, scaling back how deeply the government delves into the drug histories of people applying for a security clearance.

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Polls show that more than half of Americans have used marijuana recreationally or medicinally and that a majority believe it should be legal. Medical cannabis use is legal in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Recreational marijuana is lawful in 22 states as well as the nation’s capital but remains illegal under federal law.

“We don’t want to be disqualifying half of the population, tens of millions of people, for having done something that most of our recent presidents have done,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who has introduced legislation that would deem marijuana use immaterial in security clearance reviews required for many federal jobs. “You’re taking huge numbers of people off the field.”

Once hired, federal employees remain barred from using drugs including marijuana, even in states that have legalized it. And while there is broad support for more permissive hiring policies regarding past marijuana use, the shifting rules have critics.

When Gen. David H. Berger became the commandant of the Marine Corps in 2019, he expressed concern about how prevalent drug use had become among Marines.

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“I remain troubled by the extent to which drug abuse is a characteristic of new recruits, and the fact the vast majority of recruits require drug waivers for enlistment,” he wrote in a report on the state of the Marine Corps. The Marines declined to provide specific data on drug waivers for enlistment.

People wearing masks stand in a line along a wall.
Recruits waited in line at a Marine Corps recruiting facility in San Diego in 2020.Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Until recently, admitting recent drug use was disqualifying for many roles. But even some of the government’s most selective agencies have loosened their rules as part of a patchwork of policies that have gone largely unnoticed outside of the federal government.

The C.I.A., for instance, began telling applicants in April of 2022 that they needed to refrain from using marijuana for just 90 days before submitting an application, shortening its previous one-year eligibility requirement. In 2021, the F.B.I. reduced its marijuana abstention requirement for those seeking employment to one year from three.

In December 2021, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, issued a memo stating that past recreational marijuana use ought to be regarded as “relevant,” but “not determinative,” in deciding a person’s suitability for sensitive national security work.

And late last year, at the urging of senior national security officials, the Office of Personnel Management put forward a proposed overhaul of the security clearance vetting process that would effectively stop regarding people who previously used marijuana as a security risk.

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Currently, people applying for a security clearance must disclose a detailed account of their use of illegal drugs during the past seven years. Background checks to issue security clearances explore whether an applicant has been truthful about drug use.

Under the proposed new rules, the government would limit that time frame to five years for drugs other than marijuana, and applicants would be asked to disclose marijuana use only during the 90 days before they sought the job.

The recent arrest of a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman accused of leaking classified documents has renewed debate in Congress about how the government protects its secrets. But officials said that case had not affected the proposed overhaul of the security clearance screening process regarding drug use histories.

A senior intelligence official involved in personnel policies said the government is struggling to recruit people in their 20s as the unemployment rate is among the lowest it has been in half a century. The official, who declined to be quoted by name because the proposed changes in the government rules remain under review, said it had become clear that the intelligence community needed to adjust to a changing landscape as its employees grow older.

The government competes for talent with the private sector, which often offers better salaries, more opportunities for remote work and, increasingly, a laissez-faire approach to drug use that doesn’t affect job performance.

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Military recruiters ask prospective service members about their alcohol and drug use and are instructed to disqualify those with substance abuse problems — current or past. A key hurdle comes when recruits take a drug test at a military entrance processing station as they officially join. For years, failing that test usually meant getting kicked out on Day 1.

In 2022, 4,710 recruits failed their entry drug tests, a nearly 33 percent increase from 2020, according to military data.

A man stands in front of the U.S. Capitol and a sign that reads, in part, “Pass the joint!”
Recreational marijuana is now lawful in 22 states and the District of Columbia.Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, via Getty Images

Between 2018 and 2022, the Army granted waivers to more than 3,300 recruits who failed a drug test or admitted past drug use that technically made them ineligible, according to Army data. The Army has historically been more lenient with waivers than the other services.

The Navy, which had a zero-tolerance policy for those who failed an entry drug test, launched a pilot program in 2021 that allowed recruits the chance to take a second test after 90 days. Over the past three years, the Navy said it has issued drug waivers to 1,375 recruits.

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“We recognize that changes in state laws concerning marijuana around the country mean that a portion of our target demographic of 17- to 24-year-olds are more likely to have used THC,” Cmdr. Dave Benham, a Navy spokesman, said, referring to the active ingredient in marijuana.

The Marine Corps and Air Force also recently began allowing recruits a second opportunity to take drug tests. Military officials said the policies should not be construed as a more permissive stance on drug use once people are in the service. Federal workers are subject to random drug tests and individual agencies have significant leeway in how often they require them.

“Simply because we have a waiver process, we’re not lowering our qualifications,” said Master Sgt. Brandon S. Reid of the Air Force, who oversees a team of recruiters in New York City.

Sergeant Reid’s team recently allowed a highly qualified recruit who had signed up for a hard-to-fill mechanic role to take a second test after he failed a first one. The recruit told Air Force officials that he had been in an unventilated basement with a friend who was smoking marijuana, an account that was deemed credible, Sergeant Reid said, and the recruit passed the second test.

“It ended up being a win-win for the Air Force because we got a high-quality recruit who was motivated and honest throughout the process,” he said. Since 2018, the vast majority of military recruits allowed to retake a drug test passed a second one, according to data from the military.

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Beth J. Asch, an economist at the RAND Corporation, which conducts research for the Defense Department, said there was a common assumption that service members who enter the military after obtaining waivers are subpar recruits. But a 2021 study she led looking at the career outcomes of all soldiers who received waivers between 2001 and 2012 showed that those with a history of drug use performed no worse than their peers.

“Leaders in the military are well aware that legalization is happening and attitudes have become more tolerant,” Dr. Asch said. “My sense is they will try to take leniency to the extent they can while still being consistent with federal law.”

The government’s focus on drug use in the federal work force began during the Vietnam War amid concerns that heroin and marijuana use had become endemic among service members. A Pentagon health survey in 1980 showed that more than 27 percent of service members disclosed having used illegal drugs within the previous 30 days.

In the years that followed, President Ronald Reagan escalated the war against drugs that had been launched in the Nixon administration. A centerpiece was the “Just Say No” campaign, led by the first lady, Nancy Reagan.

Nancy Reagan, wearing a red patterned dress and red shoes, holds a fan that says, “Just Say No.” Around her are girls in dresses.
In 1987, Nancy Reagan, the former first lady, held a lace fan bearing the words, “Just Say No,” the antidrug campaign message. She was visiting Venice, Italy.Wally McNamee/CORBIS, via Getty Images

Banning drug use in the federal work force was a key initiative.

“Federal employees who use illegal drugs, on or off duty, tend to be less productive, less reliable and prone to greater absenteeism than their fellow employees who do not use illegal drugs,” Mr. Reagan wrote in a 1986 executive order that formally prohibited federal workers from using drugs. 

The private sector followed the government’s lead. By 1990, nearly 46 percent of workplaces with more than 250 employees were drug testing workers, up from just under 32 percent in 1988, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Three decades on, the course has shifted: By 2021, only 16 percent of private sector employers were testing workers for narcotics or alcohol, a federal reportshowed.

Large employers that have phased out drug testing include Apple and Amazon, which in 2021 said it made the decision based on national data showing “that pre-employment marijuana testing disproportionately impacts people of color and acts as a barrier to employment.” (The New York Times stopped requiring drug tests as a condition for employment for many jobs more than five years ago.)

Gary Hess, a former Marine officer from Louisiana, said that for most of his career, he felt drug use ought to be disqualifying for workers. His disdain for drug users was such that he fired a brother from a private sector job in 2010 for using cannabis.

But a few years later, struggling with service-related chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr. Hess said he turned to medicinal cannabis as a “last resort.”

“For me it became a performance enhancer,” said Mr. Hess, who founded the Veterans Alliance for Holistic Alternatives, which provides veterans with information about treatments including cannabis and psychedelics.

Mr. Hess said discussions about drug use in the national security field continued to overstate the dangers and overlook the therapeutic potential of some of these substances.

“They could achieve an incredible amount of resiliency in their work force if they educated their communities about medical cannabis,” he said."

Needing Younger Workers, Federal Officials Relax Rules on Past Drug Use - The New York Times

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