Cannabis & Security Clearance

Updated: July 11, 2021
In this Article

    The advent of legal cannabis raises a variety of questions for military members and civilians alike. Marijuana is on the federal list of controlled substances, and in spite of any state’s individual laws on marijuana there is still a federal prohibition to contend with.

    This makes many things complicated for those in need of a security clearance. Does a medical cannabis user automatically fail a background check for a security clearance? And what about those who have investments in the cannabis industry? Are they at risk of being denied or losing a security clearance?

    What You Need To Know About Marijuana

    At the time of this writing, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies drugs and chemicals used to formulate drugs into five schedules or categories. The DEA official site states that these schedules are based on a drug’s accepted medical uses, how likely the drug is to be abused, and how addictive it may be. “Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.”

    At the time of this writing, marijuana is federally classified as a Schedule I drug, along with heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ecstasy, methaqualone, and peyote. According to the DEA official site, these are drugs the DEA claims have “no medical value.” And while that may be a subject of debate, what is not up for debate is the fact that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

    Regardless of what state laws may say, federal law-in the context of getting or keeping federal jobs or continuing a career in military service-has the final say.

    Even if the federal prohibition is relaxed, or if the federal government chooses to selectively enforce drug laws, the hiring policies of federal agencies still apply. And for military and federal work, involvement with illegal drugs is a serious potential barrier to entry.

    Marijuana Issues Affecting Military Service Members And Federal Employees

    Any federal employee or military member using marijuana risks a great many things. There are mandatory drug tests to keep people in federal service aware and in compliance of the government’s zero-tolerance policy toward drugs and government employment. And there are also background checks for periodic security clearance review that can also reveal involvement with drugs.

    Zero Tolerance For Marijuana Use At The Federal Level For Employees And Troops

    Those in the military caught using cannabis of any kind risk punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which may or may not involve a court-martial, fines, imprisonment, reduction in rank, or other consequences.

    Federal employees risk dismissal or other punitive actions as defined by the hiring agency’s zero-tolerance drug policies.

    Marijuana use, whether legal medical cannabis, the legal recreational variety, and pot obtained illegally, is a red flag on a security clearance review. No one should be surprised by this, given the federal government’s refusal to legalize a substance that 33 states at the time of this writing have authorized for use in one form or another. How much of a red flag? It depends on several variables including the user’s history with the drug.

    But there is another aspect to cannabis that can hurt you on a background check. Something that can hurt the careers of people who have never smoked a cigarette, let alone cannabis.

    And this is something that many don’t think about when considering their ability to pass a security clearance background check. What is this serious issue?

    Investments In Marijuana Industry Companies And Your Security Clearance

    If you have investments, it’s entirely possible that you have money tied up in companies that have a stake in the ever-growing cannabis industry. Some people specifically invest their money in this new market, but others have funds invested that they don’t realize are adjacent to the cannabis industry.

    Did you know that the Phillip Morris Company owns more than $2 billion in cannabis-related investments internationally?

    It’s likely not possible for the average investor to drill down through an established company’s holdings or investment policies to learn how “pot-free” their portfolios might be. But the state of things at the time of this writing include large grey areas that leave an unsuspecting (or intentional) investor in the cannabis industry vulnerable when it comes time to do the background checks.

    Is There A Rule Against Investing In Cannabis Companies?

    Guidance on investments in the cannabis industry from an official standpoint is, as late as March 2019, defined as “hazy” by one published report in Stars And Stripes. But the noted public radio show Marketwatch reported in June 2019 that some are being told, after background checks to approve security clearances, to “dump” certain stocks related to the marijuana industry.

    The Marketwatch article includes a quote from a DoD spokesperson stating that the Department of Defense is currently researching the issue but that no specific policy exists at the time of that publication in June 2019.

    But some military attorneys have gone on record saying their interpretation of current drug policy includes viewing investment in marijuana as “drug involvement” on an illegal basis. There may be no official policy, but if there is disagreement among the federal government’s own lawyers there is simply no safe stance to take for federal employees and military members except to avoid investing in such companies altogether.

    Security Clearance Issues Related To Marijuana

    It is often pointed out that passing the background check and getting a security clearance depends greatly on the “whole person concept” which is, roughly defined, the notion of looking at the entire set of behaviors, activities, and other information to determine the suitability of an applicant rather than defining them as acceptable or not based on specific single incidents. That said, single incidents can and often do influence the outcome depending on their severity and duration.

    What does this mean for someone who might be in the “marijuana grey area” for continued or new federal service?

    It means three things. The first is that, due to the hazy nature of policy in this area, it may be tempting to conceal cannabis use or involvement (investments) during the background screening process but doing so puts you at greater risk than being forthright about it.

    The screener may find a red flag in your investment portfolio, but hiding this makes it much harder for the security clearance process to lead to an approval. Two wrongs for the price of one, in the eyes of the screener, equal a much bigger issue.

    How Much And How Often?

    And then there’s the second issue-severity. If you smoked pot once at a concert in your college years and are asked about this in a background check, it’s clear that the details show you are not actively violating federal law. It’s up to those reviewing your information to determine if the rest of your activities point to a history of not breaking the law or if your other information reveals patterns of willful disregard for it.

    Informed Investing?

    The third issue-the same considerations for smoking pot in the past also apply, in a sense, for your investments. If you own stock in a large company and find out later that it has a connection with the cannabis industry, the fact that you did not know may be taken into account when doing the security clearance review. If you did know about the connection or if you have investments that are directly tied to marijuana, your issue with the background check may be larger.

    A deliberate investment in a company associated with the pot industry may result in one of several outcomes.

    You may be asked to get rid of those investments, you may be warned that federal policy is coming that could make your investments incompatible with federal employment, or you may simply be denied a security clearance. But that denial will likely come from a set of justifications rather than a single problem (again, depending on the nature and severity of the issue).


    The Bottom Line For Cannabis And Federal Employment/Military Service

    Technically speaking, the entire nation is still under federal prohibition where marijuana is concerned. And as such the federal government does not tolerate its employees, troops, and partner organizations having connections with a still-illegal drug.

    That zero tolerance may include grey areas like the investment issue, but when the overriding policy is toward zero tolerance, it’s best to take the hint and avoid confrontation even with parts of the marijuana culture and economy that is not currently subject to specific federal guidelines.

    You may see no laws forbidding investment in medical cannabis as a federal hire, but the writing is on the wall so to speak, until there is specific direction from the DoD. It’s a “better safe than sorry” proposition at the time of this writing.

    It’s also very important to keep in mind that the Department of Defense reserves the right to make certain substances off-limits for troops and federal hires even when these are legally available.

    There are base-level restrictions in some cases, theatre-of-operations-wide prohibitions, and DoD-level controls. In the past, legal synthetic marijuana, herbal ecstasy, certain sports products, and even (in some overseas locations) certain cough medications legally available over the counter that contain codeine.

    Even if marijuana becomes federally legal at some point, the Defense Department could well choose to keep the ban on pot and pot investment. This is an outcome not to be underestimated by those hoping that an end to the federal ban on marijuana will make federal service and pot more compatible.


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    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team