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Fight over hiring cops who once used drugs

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The solution, experts say, is not to be more tolerant of drugs, but to increase efforts to get a cleaner force. "The question is not whether police departments ought to be lowering standards," says Pasco, "but doing more to prevent drug use."

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Although views on drug use may be more balanced than ever before, observers say America is obsessed with illicit activities. It is an obsession they variously trace to Puritanical and Victorian streaks running through the national consciousness.

"We don't get outraged about the greenhouse effect," says Brad Mudge, a professor of popular culture at the University of Colorado at Denver. "But if somebody uses the wrong substances, or sleeps with the wrong person, we're all over it."

That puts politicians in a bind. "Our public figures, on the one hand, they get points for candor," Mr. Mudge says. "On the other hand, what they're admitting to is engaging in a practice 50 percent of Americans might be troubled by."

Honesty also may have stung police recruit Johnson. More than a dozen local departments, including Denver in years past, have rejected him as an officer candidate. This time around, the civil-service commission allowed him into the police academy on a split vote. Those who approved his application have said he deserves a second chance - he says he hasn't used illegal drugs since 1987.

"The kid was so honest it was pathetic," says Paul Torres, the Civil Service Commission's executive director. "Most [applicants] lie through their teeth. He's being punished for being honest."

According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, overall drug use in the US remained steady in 1998. But the number of youths sampling marijuana and heroin remained at relatively high levels. The controversy in Denver, in many ways, has helped more sharply define what sort of past behavior is acceptable.

"It's important to distinguish the kinds of drugs, the length of time, and the context," says Campos. "I wouldn't have any trouble looking at an applicant for someone in a police context if they had smoked marijuana regularly up until college, but I would for someone who, post-college, was a heroin addict."

Campos's standard is similar - although a bit looser - than that used by most police departments, says Pasco, suggesting that federal, state, and law-enforcement agencies will typically overlook a handful of youthful experimentations with marijuana. But drug use beyond that could result in rejection.

The public is applying just about the same standard to those vying for public office, says Mudge. "Minor, recreational drug use is the limit," he says. "But politics is not that easy. You can't say you kept the high school supplied with cocaine."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society