While officers are sworn to uphold the law, they are not immune to drug addiction. During my 29-year law enforcement career, I saw more than one officer succumb to drug abuse.
Watching this led me to wonder about the pervasiveness of drug abuse across law enforcement, and I chose to investigate this question for my thesis while earning my masters degree in criminal justice at American Military University. I wanted to find out how many officers had used drugs before becoming an officer and the prevalence of officers using drugs during their career. The goal of my research was to better understand drug use in policing as well as to help agencies identify officers at higher risk of drug use—and in turn, help keep officers drug-free.
The Challenges of Researching Drug Use Among Officers
The first problem I ran into during my research was that there wasn’t much existing information or previous research on the topic. There were a few studies done 20 years ago about drug use in law enforcement, but, for the most part, I was starting from scratch. My original thesis proposal involved questioning drug-abusing officers about how they became addicted. However, I was unable to get approval for the study because officers would obviously be admitting to crimes (buying drugs, using drugs, etc.).
Instead, I conducted an extensive anonymous survey of more than to see how many were using drugs and identify any connections between pre-employment and post-employment drug use.
Pre-Employment Drug Use
- Less than half (47%) of respondents admitted to using drugs prior to their law enforcement career.
- The majority of those officers (90%) stated that their agency knew about their pre-employment drug use.
- 7% of officers used cannabis, followed by stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines (6.6%), hallucinogens (6%), depressants (3.3%), opiates (2.4%) and inhalants such as glue or paint (2.1%).
Post-Employment Drug Use
- Very few officers (1.7%) used (or admitted to using) drugs while employed as an officer. However, this question only asked about illegal recreational drugs, it did not include the use and abuse of prescription drugs, which is covered separately below.
- Of the officers who admitted to post-employment drug use, the majority used cannabis (46.2%), followed closely by stimulants (38.5%).
- 15% of officers who admitted to using drugs post-employment stated they had become addicted to them.
- 15% also stated that their drug use had affected their work performance.
Abuse of Pharmaceutical Drugs
- 9% of respondents had used a pharmaceutical drug that was prescribed lawfully by a physician.
- Of those officers, 44.8% were prescribed opiates, 17.6% prescribed depressants, 4.1% prescribed stimulants and 1.1% dissociative anesthetics.
- 7% of officers who had been prescribed a pharmaceutical drug stated that they had used more of the drug than authorized by a physician.
The survey also included questions about officers’ education. There have been many studies about the correlations between an officer’s level of education and police deviance. In my research, I found a link between education and drug use of officers. While the majority of responding officers had a bachelor’s degree, 53 percent of officers who admitted to using drugs only had a high-school education.
How Leadership Can Prevent Officer Drug Use
My research shows that a thorough background check weeds out officers with the potential for problematic drug abuse. As my research showed, 60 percent of agencies did not know about an officer’s prior drug use, therefore, it’s important that agencies conduct a thorough background investigation as part of the hiring process. Drug testing also reduces the chances for drug abuse, but that drug testing needs to occur throughout an officer’s career. Typically, officers are drug tested when they apply for a job and rarely tested again unless they are on probationary status or assigned to a specific unit such as narcotics.