Fight over hiring cops who once used drugs

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.

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.

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."

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

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