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Fight over hiring cops who once used drugs

By Jeff KassSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 12, 2000


By his own admission, Ellis Johnson says he's sampled illegal drugs 150 times. He says he's stolen from former employees and even shoved his ex-wife.

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Now, he's in training to wear a badge for the Denver Police. To those who accepted him, Mr. Johnson deserves a second chance. But to critics, the recruit's mistakes represent a past too mottled for a future man of the law.

Johnson's case may be extreme, but it is representative of an increasingly common conundrum in the world of public service: Where do you draw the line on past drug use?

In recent years, public figures raised during the 1960s - including Vice President Al Gore, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas - have risen in government despite admissions that they have smoked marijuana. Yet others, such as Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg in 1987, have been rejected or censured.

The different reactions, observers say, illustrate the cyclical nature of America's cultural mores, as well as its evolving willingness to tolerate and forgive.

Here in Denver, they add, the general acceptance of a few puffs of marijuana - but opposition to anything more - may hint at a new standard nationwide.

"This story [of Johnson] might be an indication we're coming back to a nicer balance," says Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Society's pendulum has swung between extremes of permissiveness and intolerance this century, Mr. Campos says. Prohibition in the 1920s is perhaps the classic symbol of repression, while the 1960s illustrated hedonism, and the harsh drug laws of the 1980s represented a backlash.

The current era is producing a more nuanced attitude toward accepting some drug use - within limits. So far, for instance, the American public has not turned against Texas Gov. George W. Bush despite his refusal to deny past drug use.

One reason for the shift: The flower children of the '60s are now arbiters of public opinion. "A lot of baby boomers have had to raise kids, and come to terms with what they did in the past," says Campos. "People use drugs; it doesn't make them drug addicts or evil people."

Police standards have also been in flux since the 1960s. "There was a time when no level of drug use was acceptable," says Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Tenn., referring to the pre-Vietnam era.

But by the 1980s, as Vietnam-era children matured and applied to police departments, there was a recognition that society had changed and that experimen- tation with drugs was more widespread.

Still, it doesn't mean anything goes. "I can't think of a single police department in the United States that would hire an individual who admitted to that level of drug use," Mr. Pasco says when informed of Johnson's record.

The economy, however, has made being choosy more difficult. Applications to police departments are down because, with $50,000-a-year high-tech jobs available, many job-seekers don't want to take a job in which they may be shot at. Besides, the average starting salary for a police officer is $28,000, says Pasco.