Cops and Drugs: Police Departments Tolerating Past Drug Use by Job Applicants 6/23/00

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The Los Angeles Times reported last week ( that police departments across the country are hiring admitted former drug users.  The article focused on the Denver Police Department, where controversy over police hiring policies broke out last year, but also compared Denver's policies with selected other departments.  Denver, the Times found, is not unique.

In Denver, where the Times looked at the employment applications of every police officer hired last year, 52 of 80 new hires admitted to past drug use, usually, but not always merely marijuana.  Ten of the new hires had used other drugs, including LSD, psilocybin, ecstasy and amphetamines.

One officer listed about 75 drug experiences over a 20 year period, including speed, LSD, cocaine, and Librium.  Another admitted to having bought quarter-ounce bags of weed on several occasions, but described the buys as "a mistake I deeply regret making."

All of the above cases fit the Denver PD's guidelines for acceptable past drug use, which require only that the applicant's have been clean for the last year.

Other departments surveyed by the Times also have policies that allow the hiring of persons with drug use histories.  In Dallas, you can have smoked marijuana on as many as 75 occasions, but you must wait a year for every 10 usages.  If you admit to having smoked 10 times, come back in a year; 10 to 20 times, come back in two years.

The Tempe (Arizona) Police Department has different criteria: You can have smoked pot up to 20 times, but only 5 times after you've turned 21, and you cannot have smoked in the last three years.  In Tempe, even hard drug use is not an automatic disqualification.  Fewer than five times gets you a free pass, but only if was more than seven years ago and before you became an adult.

In Austin, applicants can even have sold marijuana in the past, as long as it was at least 10 years ago and they were never arrested.  For marijuana use alone, a three-year wait, and a five-year wait after "narcotics" use.

Seattle's policy is identical to Denver's one-year rule, except for a 10-year wait after using hallucinogens.

Even the FBI has loosened up.  The agency, which maintained a strict ban until 1994, now operates under guidelines that allow prospective applicants to have smoked marijuana up to 15 times, though not within the previous three years; hard drugs up to five times, though not within the previous 10 years.

FBI Denver office spokeswoman Jane Quimby told the Times, "The general preference is still to hire someone who hasn't broken the law, but the harsh reality is... there just aren't that many people."  Quimby, who was in charge of Denver police hiring from 1997 to 1999 said that of 35 agents hired on her watch, one-third admitted to having smoked pot.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, the DEA has also made provisions for at least some drug users, agency spokeswoman Rogene Waite told DRCNet.  "In the case of marijuana specifically, youthful indiscretion is allowed for.  Use of any other drugs is an automatic disqualifier," she added.  Unlike many other law enforcement agencies, DEA does not have a set of quantitative guidelines, Waite said.

The law enforcement hiring practices mentioned above are replete with ironies and contradictions.  For one thing, they reflect a growing crisis in police hiring, which has resulted in departments relaxing their standards at the same time drug laws have become more severe.

"If you think you're going to try to hire police recruits who have never used drugs, you're just whistling," former San Jose (California) Police Chief Joe McNamara told the Times.

Such comments inspired the Times to ask, "How can a substance be so pernicious that thousands of Americans are arrested every day for using it, yet so acceptable that a user can still grow up to be a cop?  In some cases, officers bust people for acts they themselves have committed.  If police are that permissive with their own, how can the law be so punitive with others?

And that question points up another contradiction: the huge disconnect between relaxed social attitudes toward drug use, especially marijuana, and the harsh, punitive laws in place to discourage drug use.  Americans routinely defy drug laws, in numbers so large that police departments are now being forced to make allowances for hiring drug law violators, yet police departments spend billions each year trying to arrest these same people.

When asked to reconcile these conflicts, law enforcers turn begin to sound like soft-hearted apologists, the Times reported.  They sling around phrases such as "human frailty" and "putting mistakes in context."

Such selective compassion arouses people like Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).  "It's ironic and sad that police are given more leniency than the people they pick up," Stewart told the Times.  "These are people who don't get a second chance... who aren't looked at in their entirety."

The Times turned to renowned criminologist Elliot Currie for a last word.  Most of our institutions recognize that minor drug use "is not a particularly dreadful thing," he told the Times.  The fact that police, the very symbol of order and authority, tolerate past drug use "tells us that our draconian system of drug laws bears no resemblance to reality."

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Issue #142, 6/23/00 Senate Passes Colombia Military Assistance, Marginal Differences With House Version Head to Conference Committee, What Next? | Cops and Drugs: Police Departments Tolerating Past Drug Use by Job Applicants | Canadian Marijuana Party Forms: "Look Out Ottawa, Here We Come!" | Australia: In Victoria, Drug Reform Comes Painfully Slow, Injection Room Bill Faces Tough Battle | Delaware Mandatory Minimum Sunset Bill | Lies, Damn Lies and the Drug Abuse Warning Network Statistics | US Surgeon General's Latest Research Review Supports Needle Exchange Programs | AlertS: Free Speech, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Washington State | HEA Campaign | Event Calendar | Editorial: Cops, Drug Use, Symbolism
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