Cover Story-Part 3

Past Marijuana Use Standards in Hiring: Adapting to a Changing World?
By Joel E. Gordon

Coast to coast, police departments are facing a crisis in finding qualified applicants without a background of illicit drug use. With changing cultural views, particularly as to marijuana use, law enforcement agencies are revisiting their hiring standards to widen the qualified applicant pool. Further, some officials are willing to expunge so-called minor criminal offenses such as disorderly conduct, failure to obey an officer, urinating in public and other similar crimes from the records of potential candidates as well. Whether you agree with this or not does not negate it as a reality.

Although the lowering of hiring standards has historically resulted in problematic results laden with negative unintended consequences, in the case of past drug use in particular, perhaps more important are assurances that potential new hires in law enforcement are honest about past drug use, devoid of chemical dependencies and free from the effects of any potential hallucinogenic drug flashbacks.

Here are two examples of how the issue has been addressed in an evolving environment of change…

Beginning in Los Angeles California
As early as 2006, two years after the Los Angeles Police Department rescinded a “zero tolerance” drug policy as it struggled to boost its ranks, city officials admitted that they hired six officers who had a history of hard drug use.

Personnel officials believed that although the officers experimented with hard drugs as teenagers, they later showed the good judgment and strong character required in a police officer. The LAPD and the city’s Personnel Department long had maintained a strict policy that barred candidates who had used cocaine, heroin, amphetamines and hallucinogens even once.

The City Civil Service Commission adjusted its police officer hiring policies in 2003 to give the Personnel Department more freedom to weigh such experimental drug use against an applicant’s other accomplishments such as community leadership, college or military service, creating what became known as a “whole person” analysis and profile. The department placed no exact limit on what constituted acceptable previous drug use. Screeners were told to consider the applicant’s age when they sampled drugs and how long or how many times drugs were used. Still, an organization known as the Police Protective League expressed concerns, citing a position that even limited drug use can be a sign of poor coping skills and bad judgment.

Baltimore Maryland’s City
Police Department Today
In 2017, regulators in Maryland eased restrictions on the amount of marijuana prospective police officers may have used before being hired in the state as proposed by Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to boost his department’s hiring efforts. The updated rule, which received approval from the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission, bars the hiring of any prospective officers who have smoked marijuana in the past three years. It replaces a state policy dating to the 1970s that had disqualified police applicants who had used marijuana more than 20 times in their lives, or five times since turning 21 years old.

The Baltimore Sun newspaper reported that Vince Canales, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police and a member of the commission, cast the lone vote against the change. In a newspaper interview after the vote, he noted that marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and said there “is still no real clarity” on how states will treat the drug in coming years.

“Until this thing settles, shakes itself out and it’s determined how it’s going to be handled around the country, we think the standard should be maintained as far as police officers are concerned,” Canales said.

“I don’t know that it necessarily takes away from the quality of the applicants that we have,” Canales said. “I just think at this time, changing the standard without a wholesale look at the way marijuana is viewed in the state and around the country is premature.”

While honest law-abiding applicants who have drug-free backgrounds remain among the most desirable individuals to potentially recruit, hire and retain, is it the case that many agencies will have no other choice than to adapt to a changing legal climate and culture, particularly as it pertains to the use of marijuana in order to not disqualify otherwise qualified recruits?

On the other hand…
We all know individuals within the law enforcement profession who have or have developed alcohol dependencies as a part of their coping mechanism. Do we want to add new recruits who have used illicit drugs as a crutch to coping?

In the final analysis, the question remains: Will agencies need to continue adapting to a changing culture in order to fill their ranks, or will departments need to work harder to find the very best job applicants while holding firm on established standards?

We’ll leave it to you and each individual agency to decide.