Examining police recruit marijuana use criteria

Should the ever-increasing list of states becoming more lenient on marijuana alter our hiring criteria?


In March 2020, Police1 and Louisiana State University (LSU) conducted an expansive survey capturing law enforcement attitudes toward marijuana use and enforcement. A total of 3,615 sworn LEOs weighed in on a range of topics, from the use of medicinal marijuana off duty to decriminalization. 

Our special report features expert analysis of the survey findings, covering critical topics like police recruit marijuana use and how marijuana legalization impacts highway safety. Click here to access all our coverage.

With the seemingly constant relaxation of marijuana laws, agencies across the nation have had to change how they police. With that, our recruiting and hiring mindsets and criteria may need updating too.

I wasn’t surprised by the results of the Police1 and LSU “Policing in the Era of Marijuana” survey. The themes I observed were that the majority of the cops surveyed stated marijuana shouldn’t be legalized or decriminalized – and in jurisdictions where it is, problems relating to marijuana use are worse than they were before the change. 

For me, two questions emerge from this survey:

Should the ever-increasing list of states becoming more lenient on marijuana impact our hiring criteria? (Photo/Getty Images)
Should the ever-increasing list of states becoming more lenient on marijuana impact our hiring criteria? (Photo/Getty Images)
  1. Should the ever-increasing list of states becoming more lenient on marijuana impact our hiring criteria?
  2. Should our profession's majority opinion on marijuana use be the sole basis for the candidates we consider?

Hiring criteria

The Topeka Police Department used to disqualify applicants who had used marijuana in the 36 months prior to their application, but a rising number of applicants reporting more recent marijuana use caused us to reexamine our criteria. The legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado in 2012, our neighbor to the west, may have contributed to this.

One candidate was a former Marine who, after an honorable discharge, got married and ate a marijuana candy while on honeymoon in Colorado. This was his first and only marijuana use in his life, but since it was 13 months prior to his police application, he was disqualified from our hiring process. Other candidates who smoked marijuana several times a week for years (but more than 36 months ago) were advancing to the next step.

We seemed to be at a crossroads. We needed to decide what our intent behind the marijuana use criteria was while also examining the changes taking place throughout the country in regard to marijuana legalization and use.

I believe we shouldn’t hire someone who has a marijuana problem, just like we wouldn’t hire someone with a drinking problem. If a candidate used marijuana one time under mitigating circumstances but is otherwise squared away and what our department and our community needs, I believe they can compete for a spot.

I know people will vehemently disagree with me, and I’m not trying to convince anyone to agree. I am simply saying to consider advancing that candidate to the next hiring step. The Topeka Police Department ultimately changed the timeline to 12 months, with the chief having the discretion to allow a candidate who has used marijuana sooner.

What is the intent of changing criteria?

Agencies must decide what the intent behind the marijuana use criteria is and what they’re comfortable with.

If the intent is to use the criteria as a strict decision-making and judgment test, maybe 24-36 months since last use is in order. If the intent is to ensure the candidate does not have a marijuana problem, then something like 12 months being marijuana free with no history of constant use would be satisfactory.

Whatever your agency decides, consider allowing the chief/sheriff or designee some discretion to override the criteria.

When examining whether your marijuana use hiring criteria needs adjusting, remember the stakeholder: the community. Assistant Training Director Sergeant Ruben Salamanca of the Topeka Police Department suggests you ask the following question: “Whatever you decide, will it gain you any favor with the community, or is it simply because you are struggling to find candidates?” Agencies should develop an articulable standard and stick to it, yet be willing to reassess and evolve it if needed.

For access to the full survey results, click here.

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