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Back to Archives | Back to August 2008 Contents 

The Impact of Drug Decriminalization on the Future of Police Recruiting Standards

By Lieutenant Wade J. Derby, Pittsburg, California, Police Department

ecruiting and hiring qualified peace officer candidates is a critical component in providing quality police services. This has never been an easy task, but the task is becoming even more difficult in recent years due to the shortage of workers in the upcoming generation as well as to the strict standards law enforcement organizations have adopted for police officer candidates.

Today, police agencies across the United States are struggling to fill existing vacancies amid dwindling applicant pools and the lure of better jobs in the private sector. Just when the law enforcement community thought the situation could not get worse, a new foe to hiring and recruiting has emerged. Drug decriminalization and the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes will make the task of hiring qualified police candidates more difficult over the next decade.

Preemployment drug use is becoming one of the most troublesome areas for prospective police recruits. Although there are many reasons for a candidate’s disqualification, most background investigators agree that prior drug use is among the top reasons.1 Now more than ever, agencies are being forced to take a hard look at the idea of modifying prehire drug use standards to ensure enough candidates to fill vacancies.

This article examines the issues of drug decriminalization and rising drug use in the future applicant pools as a result of societal shifts in drug use and acceptance of this behavior.

Marijuana Decriminalization by State Legislation

There are currently 12 states in the United States that have decriminalized marijuana possession to the level of an infraction or fine without incarceration (see figure 1) and 47 states have made penalties for marijuana possession a less serious offense. There are currently 13 states where so-called medical marijuana is legal to possess, cultivate, or distribute, and changes to marijuana legislation are pending in a significant number of other states. Despite state-level decriminalization, possession of marijuana of any kind or amount is still against U.S. federal law.

This legislative shift toward leniency for drug use is far more than a trend; it speaks to a greater societal acceptance of this behavior. Jeff Kass of the Christian Science Monitor says, “The flower children of the ’60s are now arbiters of public opinion.”2 This is an era where even U.S. presidents, past and present, have publicly disclosed personal drug use in some form without suffering in the polls.

In 1990, the population of the United States was 248,709,873, and in 1988 there were an estimated 11.8 million admitted regular marijuana users.3 By the year 2000, the number of people who admitted to using marijuana at some point reached 70 million out of a population of 281,421,906.4

Furthermore, the drug use statistics covering the current law enforcement applicant pool are not very optimistic. Teen rates of use for any illicit drugs in 1999 often cited as the peak year in youth drug use—and 2007, as reported in an ongoing study by the University of Michigan, are included in table 1.5

The 2007 group contains those students who will be applicants for the law enforcement workforce within the next four to eight years.

Drug Legalization in Colombia

With the admitted levels of drug use rising among U.S. youth, in what direction might the further legalization of drugs lead? A look at what occurred in the South American nation of Colombia over a 10-year period suggests some answers. In 1994, Colombia legalized the personal use and possession of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. According to a 10-year study of drug habits since the implementation of this legislation, drug use has increased 40 percent. By 2004, 9 of every 100 city-dwelling Colombians aged 12–25 was regularly using drugs.6

Drug legalization in Colombia made the country’s populace more accepting of drugs. Drug treatment costs have become exorbitant, and cocaine now costs less than a beer. Drug dealing still continues to increase, and the Colombian government is considering recriminalizing drugs to combat the problem. 7 The experience of drug legalization in Colombia indicated that societal drug use increased substantially. Given the already elevated levels of drug use by young people in the United States, any legislation to decriminalize or legalize drugs in the future could potentially increase societal drug use far beyond levels we know today.

In the Netherlands, a country where marijuana is legal, drug use among persons aged 18–25 years increased by over 200 percent between 1984 and 1996.8 In 1997, that country saw a 25 percent increase in the number of registered cannabis addicts receiving treatment.9 In contrast to the Netherlands’ acceptance of soft and hard drugs, legislation went into effect January 1, 2007, to stop active police officers in Amsterdam from using drugs while off duty.10

Further Reading

Readers interested in learning more about the issue of drug legalization should consult the following sources:

Hartnett, Edmund. “Drug Legalization: Why It Wouldn’t Work in the United States.” The Police Chief 72, no. 3 (March 2005): 20–26.

Tandy, Karen. “Marijuana: The Myths Are Killing Us.” From the Administator column. The Police Chief 72, no. 3 (March 2005): 14–18.

Woska, William J. “Police Officer Recruitment: A Public-Sector Crisis.” The Police Chief 73, no. 10 (October 2006):

Henchey, James P. “Ready or Not, Here They Come: The Millennial Generation Enters the Workforce.” The Police Chief 72, no. 9 (September 2005): 108–118.

Hubbard, Gwendolyn, Robert K. Cromwell, and Tony Sgro. “Mission Possible: Creating a New Face for the FBI.” The Police Chief 71, no. 10 (October 2004): 37–44.

see articles online at

Survey of California Agencies

In March 2005, an e-mail survey of 25 California law enforcement agencies was conducted to assess the status of preemployment drug use standards. All agencies said they complied with state standards in their hiring practices. Only seven agencies had written standards regarding preemployment drug use; the others said their standard in this area was unwritten. The least strict respondent to the survey allowed marijuana use as recently as six months before employment. Ten disqualified any applicant with any history of use of drugs stronger than marijuana. The Clayton Police Department had the most stringent preemployment drug use standard: no applicant shall have used any drug stronger than marijuana, and the marijuana use had to have taken place at least five years before appointment. Interestingly, Clayton was the smallest agency surveyed, and the agency with the most liberal policy was among the largest.

This reinforces what many would guess. The largest agencies must fill the greatest number of vacancies, whereas the smallest might need only to staff single vacancies on occasion. Some agencies, by virtue of their size, have more applicants than they need and might not be as affected by rising drug use as agencies in more metropolitan areas.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) probe into the corrupt activities of members of its Rampart Division in the late 1990s revealed that some of the involved officers had criminal records for theft, assault, gang involvement, and drug activity. 11 As stated by former LAPD deputy chief Steve Downing, “Rampart wasn’t about cops who became gangsters; it was about gangsters who became cops.”12 Chapter 10 of the LAPD Board of Inquiry’s final report states, “Respondents overwhelmingly pointed to the department’s lowered hiring standards as a major factor in the breakdown of integrity and ethical standards. Several employees were aware of the department hiring people with prior gang affiliations, drug use, and criminal histories.”13

Although research does not assert that previous drug use alone is the linchpin of police corruption, the Rampart incident serves as an example to demonstrate the need for standards high enough to weed out the unfit before they can prey on an unsuspecting public. Although youth drug use is lower today than in 1999, it is still prominent among the future workforce population. Considering that drug use is slowly being decriminalized and legalized in the United States, and members of the future hiring pool could be, at this moment, lighting up a joint, how can agencies respond? How do administrators address the future of police recruiting standards now?

Some Strategies for the 21st Century

Any possible changes agencies can make to address this recruiting problem will not be easy, but some will be more effective than others. To attract desirable applicants to a law enforcement agency, its salaries and benefits must remain competitive not only with allied law enforcement agencies but also with private sector jobs. This is difficult due to the dwindling budgets most cities and counties face. Youths of today realize that they have many choices when entering the workforce. Now more than ever before, they are looking at benefits and salary as well as growth opportunities and working conditions.14

Part of the solution is to adjust agency standards while complying with the state minimum standards. It is necessary to recognize that some applicants will have tried drugs in their youth. Each organization needs to assess its overall recruiting needs and evaluate its standards for preemployment drug use.

The issue of drug use is a serious one and should be evaluated as such—but perhaps with a somewhat greater tolerance for youthful indiscretion than before. Individual candidates determined to have used drugs should be screened thoroughly, taking into account age at the time of drug use, the amount and types used, patterns of poor behavior, and their level of honesty about the issues in their background.

Personnel selected to perform background investigations must themselves be of high caliber and proactive in their approach to selecting the best people for the job. Depending on the number of officers an agency needs to hire, most will not have the luxury of dismissing otherwise sound candidates because of minimal drug use. It is imperative to adjust drug use standards to accommodate the officers of the future—provided that these adjustments are made with caution. Through careful evaluation of applicants as whole people and what they bring to the organization and the community, agencies ensure that they consider the most important factors in deciding whom to hire.

Even with higher pay incentives, educational requirements, hiring bonuses, flexible work schedules, and other methods currently in place to attract applicants to the profession, prehire drug use standards should be considered a work in progress. Recruiting quality personnel in the face of the problems discussed in this article must start early in the lives of potential candidates. Although some will be inclined to seek out the challenge of policing, the law enforcement community will have to work actively to entice far more young people to consider the profession. These days, cadet and law enforcement Explorer programs give young people a solid understanding of the profession; these programs can also be used to evaluate potential candidates, instilling agency values and mentoring those who wish to someday pursue a career in this field.

Finally, police executives must enforce whatever standards they choose by ensuring that their agencies’ newest members are inducted into ethical organizations. Although many say that ethics cannot be taught, they certainly can be reinforced throughout a 30-year career. It is incumbent on all representatives of the profession to select the best people for the job.

Drug decriminalization is an issue the law enforcement community must face, not only when policing its communities but also when considering who in the next generation will serve and protect the community. Adjusting policies now and clarifying exactly what is, and is not, acceptable will help ensure that future generations of police meet the highest moral and ethical standards. ■   


1Kevin Johnson, “Police Struggle to Find Next Generation,” USA Today, November 21, 2000.
2Jeff Kass, “Fight over Hiring Cops Who Once Used Drugs,” Christian Science Monitor, January 12, 2000, (accessed June 16, 2008).
3Douglas McVay, “Marijuana Legalization: The Time is Now,” chap. 7 in The Drug Legalization Debate, ed. James A. Inciardi, Studies in Crime, Law, and Justice 7 (Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications, 1991). U.S. Population figure based on the U.S. Census 1990, U.S. Census Bureau Web site, (accessed June 10, 2008).
4Gregory Foley, “Cops Can Get Hired despite Past Drug Use,” Point Reyes Light, August 3, 2000, (accessed June 19, 2008). Total population based on the U.S. Census 2000, U.S. Census Bureau Web site, (accessed June 10, 2008).
5“Trends in Lifetime Prevalence of Use of Various Drugs for Eighth, Tenth, and Twelfth Graders,” table 1 in the 33rd national survey, Monitoring the Future Web site, (accessed June 10, 2008).
6Kim Houseugo, “Colombia Sinks in Sea of Legal Cocaine, Heroin,” Associated Press, April 3, 2004.
8Larry Collins, “Holland’s Half-Baked Drug Experiment,” Foreign Affairs 78, no. 3 (May–June 1999): 82, 88.
10David Charter, “Amsterdam’s Drug Police Demand Right to Keep On Smoking Cannabis,” Times (London), December 27, 2007, (accessed June 26, 2008).
11Daniel Allen, “Police Recruiting and Its Impact on Corruption,” applied research project, Eastern Michigan University School of Police Staff and Command, May 27, 2003,,%20Selection,%20%20Promotion)/Police%20Recruiting%20and%20Its%20Impact%20on%20Corruption.pdf (accessed June 19, 2008).
12Quoted in Jan Golab, “How Racial P.C. Corrupted the LAPD,” The American Experience, June 2005, (accessed June 20, 2008).
13Bernard C. Parks, Los Angeles Police Department Board of Inquiry into the Rampart Area Corruption Incident: Public Report, March 1, 2000, 317, (accessed June 19, 2008).
14Mark Gordon, “Police Recruiting in the 21st Century,” applied research project, Eastern Michigan University School of Police Staff and Command, August 19, 2004,,%20Selection,%20%20Promotion)/Police%20Recruiting%20in%20the%2021st%20Century.pdf (accessed June 19, 2008).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 8, August 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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