The FBI has long been the uncompromising compass of the federal government’s war on drugs. “Just say no!” wasn’t merely a stock message to the public — it reflected how the law enforcement agency screened job applicants.
If prospective agents or analysts had smoked marijuana more than 15 times in their lives or used other illegal narcotics more than five times, or if they had used illegal drugs even once in recent years, they were barred from employment with the FBI. Sometimes, applicants who couldn’t recall the exact number of times or the last time they had smoked pot failed their polygraph tests — sending their applications straight to the agency’s black list.
It was an arbitrary, hyperjudgmental approach to personnel. Responsible, accomplished, law-abiding adults who used drugs occasionally as students were deemed by FBI brass to be as sharp as the Rev. Jim Ignatowski of “Taxi” fame. The country’s top law enforcement department couldn’t enforce drug laws if the front lines were helmed by former stoners, could it?
Americans continued to use illegal drugs, of course, with untold millions occasionally smoking marijuana. The FBI’s hiring policy drove otherwise excellent recruits to private companies and other federal agencies, which adopted a more forgiving attitude toward drug use. Since 2001, scores of counterterrorism and intelligence positions went unfilled as the FBI stubbornly held its ground.
This year, the FBI quietly changed its drug standards for applicants, abandoning hard caps on past usage. Instead, the bureau now mandates that prospective agents and analysts swear they have not used marijuana in the past three years and that they haven’t tried more serious narcotics in the past 10 years.
“Increasingly, this is less about someone who smoked pot a couple times when they were a kid in college and more about ‘Do you have a drug problem now and are you lying about it now?’ ” Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, told The Washington Post. “That’s the shift you’re seeing in both the private and public sectors.”
And that’s a perfectly rational position.