Can You Become a Police Officer with a History of Drug Use?

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

A police department is only as good as the aggregate of its membership, and, in some cases, it is only as strong as its weakest or least professional officers. Police administrators have long recognized this fact and substantial effort and resources toward selecting the best applicants for positions as police officers. Today, even with the down turn in the economy, there is a shortage of highly qualified police applicants and police departments are going to extraordinary lengths to find highly qualified police applicants.

But what about highly qualified police applicants with a history of drug use; can they still become police officers? A person with a history of drug use who is thinking about becoming a police officer needs to know a little about the practices used by departments to select officers. The following paragraphs provide a brief discussion of some of the most common selection criteria used to screen police applicants who may have a history of drug use.

Most police departments conduct investigations into applicants' backgrounds. About 96% of the departments perform background checks. The objectives of these investigations are to uncover any criminal or undesirable behavior patterns and to determine whether applicants possess positive work attributes. Some of these standards include drug and alcohol usage.

Most police departments use the polygraph in the selection process, although it is disallowed in some states (such as Michigan and Pennsylvania) by state statute. Over 65% of law enforcement agencies used the polygraph. The polygraph is frequently instrumental in uncovering information about an applicant's criminal history, drug and alcohol usage, and ethics. Police departments obviously cannot afford to hire individuals with extensive records of substance abuse, and the polygraph and background investigations are the only effective tools to learn of such behaviors.

Departments set drug usage standards, especially when the polygraph is used. The polygraph generally leads to a significant number of admissions—a number that is typically so large that it sometimes becomes difficult for some agencies to hire enough drug-free officers to fill a training class. Most departments today have specified what drug-related behaviors are acceptable and which ones are not. When developing policy, departments often consider the following areas:

  1. Recency of usage
  2. Patterns or frequency of usage
  3. Types of drugs used
  4. Involvement in sale and distribution of drugs

There is substantial variability in police drug standards for police applicants. One study found that 35% of the departments surveyed rejected outright candidates who had previously smoked marijuana. About 60% of the departments reported that it was difficult to recruit enough applicants when marijuana was strictly forbidden. Many departments consider applicants who have experimented with soft drugs such as marijuana but have strict prohibitions against long-term usage or the use of hard drugs such as cocaine, LSD, or opiates. Moreover, a department's drug standards likely change over time. Many departments have loosened their requirements as a result of shortages in officers and applicants.

Having a history of drug use does not mean that one cannot become a police officer. People with substance use in their history, however, have to be realistic about the possibility of becoming a police officer. Chances are that if a person has an extensive history of using hard drugs over an extended period of time, has used illegal drug s or recently or has been involved in the sale or distributions of illegal drugs, they will not obtain employment in a major municipal police department. This having been said, experimental drug use in one’s youth especially if that use is not very recent will not bar police employment in many agencies.

Victor E. Kappeler
Associate Dean
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

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Published on January 15, 2013