Confusion over weed policies may be blunting new recruits for intelligence agencies

With recreational marijuana use at an all-time high and more states legalizing weed every year, confusion over federal policies around drug use and security clearance eligibility could stem many young people from entering a career in national security.

That’s the conclusion of a new survey, the results of which were rolled out in a report published today by ClearanceJobs and the Intelligence and National Security Foundation. The survey polled students and young professionals aged 18 to 30 currently living or attending school in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., California, Florida, Texas and Colorado.

A total of 905 respondents completed the survey, and of those, 40% said they had used marijuana in the past 12 months, while 31% said they had used some form of cannabidiol (CBD) over the past year.

The survey found 55% of the respondents would consider applying for a job that requires a security clearance, while 24% were a “maybe.”

But more than half of those polled said their perception of screening requirements for a security clearance would prevent them from applying for a job, including 21% who said needing to report marijuana or other drug and alcohol use would preclude them from seeking a cleared job.

Meanwhile, 20% said needing to report mental health struggles would stop them from applying for a clearance. Officials in recent years have also sought to reduce the stigma around seeking mental health treatment in the intelligence community.

Some of those polled thought using marijuana shouldn’t be a problem at all for those seeking a clearance, while at the other end of the spectrum, nearly a quarter of the respondents thought any past use of marijuana was automatically disqualifying.

And 9% of the respondents incorrectly said people who currently hold a security clearance are able to use marijuana anywhere, while 31% thought it would be OK in a state where it’s legal.

Only 23% were aware of the actual policy that using marijuana is a factor for security clearance applicants, but that it shouldn’t be the sole disqualifier in deciding whether to grant a clearance. And just 33% of respondents correctly answered that once someone is granted a clearance, they’re effectively forbidden from using marijuana no matter where they live or they risk losing the clearance.

Once they were informed of the correct policies, 25% of respondents said the ban on marijuana use for clearance holders would prevent them from seeking such a position. And 18% said they would not stop using marijuana to increase the likelihood that they’ll be granted a clearance.

“There are two key issues with current drug policies — the reality that one in five young people have no desire to pursue a government career with a marijuana ban, and the even greater number who are simply completely ignorant of the government’s drug policies — so much so that they are likely to weed themselves out of the process erroneously,” the report states.

Clarifying guidance on marijuana

Intelligence leaders have recognized in recent years that historically strict policies around past marijuana use and inconsistent security clearance decisions across agencies have led to confusion amid a growing crop of U.S. states legalizing the drug.

A 2022 Gallup poll found 48% of Americans reported trying marijuana at least once, while 16% say they actively use it.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence in late 2021 issued “clarifying guidance” concerning marijuana for agencies deciding whether to grant someone a clearance.

The guidance emphasizes that the illegal use of any controlled substances “can raise security concerns about an individual’s reliability and trustworthiness to access classified information or to hold a sensitive position, as well as their ability or willingness to comply with laws, rules, and regulations.”

But it also instructs agencies that prior recreational marijuana use by an individual “may be relevant to adjudications but not determinative” in granting a clearance. It references a 2017 security directive that tells agencies to apply the “whole person concept” to a clearance decision.

For instance, a person could still be granted a security clearance after using marijuana based on the “frequency of use and whether the individual can demonstrate that future use is unlikely to recur,” the guidance continues.

During a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing this past March, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines explained the current policy.

“We recognize frankly that many states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana use and wanted to be sure that we’re not disqualifying people solely for that purpose,” Haines said. “We want to have the talent that exists in America and when somebody is using experimentally in a legal state, that’s something that shouldn’t on its own, essentially, disqualify.”

But she also emphasized that current policy directs personnel to refrain from using marijuana once they’re granted a clearance.

“We continue to approach this from a whole of person perspective and we expect if anybody takes the job to comply with our policies and our laws in a trusted position,” Haines said.

‘Incremental change’

The findings from the recent survey may be illuminating for intelligence agencies seeking to replace retiring employees with the next generation of its workforce. But Lindy Kyzer, director of content for ClearanceJobs, said ball may now be in Congress’s court to make further changes to how the clearance process addresses prior marijuana use.

“I think they have done everything they can in terms of moving the needle on policy at ODNI, but we just collectively need to educate young people that drug use is one factor among many and not a career killer, at least prior to application,” Kyzer said.

Congress has considered efforts in recent years to ensure past marijuana use on its own isn’t a barrier to employment in the intelligence community. Last year, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) led a push to include a provision in the 2023 intelligence authorization bill that would have prohibited agencies from disqualifying a security clearance applicant based solely on prior weed use.

But the provision was stripped out of the final bill due to opposition from GOP senators, according to reporting from Marijuana Moment.

Meanwhile, agencies recently proposed revisions to security clearance questionnaires that would separate questions about marijuana use from other types drugs. The changes are in “in recognition of changing societal norms,” according to the proposal.

But the survey of young people shows “how long it takes a communication effort around something like this to take hold,” Kyzer said. She compared it to efforts to assure employees that seeking out mental healthcare won’t affect their clearance status.

“We’ve been talking about the mental health piece for more than a decade. I’ve really only seen efforts to change policy and provide clarity around marijuana use in the past year,” Kyzer said. “The updated Personnel Vetting Questionnaire will separate marijuana from other drugs — all of these are steps in the right direction, but when it comes to security clearance policy, the change is always incremental.”

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