WASHINGTON — Aspiring FBI agents who once dabbled in marijuana use won't be barred from getting a job with the elite crime-fighting agency, which has loosened its drug policy amid a campaign to hire hundreds of agents.
The bureau's pot-smoking standard, in place for at least 13 years, was revised after internal debate about whether the policy was eliminating prospects because of drug experimentation, said Jeff Berkin, deputy director of the FBI's Security Division. The policy disqualified candidates if they had used marijuana more than 15 times.
There was no public announcement of the change. It took effect in January. The decision comes as the FBI continues its hiring campaign and as law enforcement agencies across the USA grapple with high rates of disqualification based in part on applicants' past drug use.
Berkin said the previous policy was based on a scoring system that had become "arbitrary." He also said it created problems for applicants who couldn't remember how many times they had smoked pot when asked in polygraph examinations.
"It encourages honesty and allows us to look at the whole person," Berkin said of the revised policy. He said it was too early to tell whether the new standard has encouraged an increasing number of applicants as the FBI attempts to hire 221 agents and 121 intelligence analysts.
Experts said the policy reflects a changing view of prior marijuana use by law enforcement officials.
"Increasingly, the goal for the screening of security clearance applicants is whether you are a current drug user, rather than whether you used in the past," said Tom Riley, a spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "It's not whether you have smoked pot four times or 16 times 20 years ago. It's about whether you smoked last week and lied about it."
Elaine Deck, a senior program manager with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said police departments report problems with an increasing number of applicants failing background investigations because of drug use and financial irregularities.
In Santa Fe, where recruiters are attempting to fill 15 vacancies this year, more than 60% of applicants are routinely found to be unfit after background investigations, Police Chief Eric Johnson said. Applicants are disqualified if they are found to have used drugs within the past three years, Johnson said, adding that the department does tolerate some past marijuana use.
In Las Vegas, where the department is attempting to hire 2,000 officers over the next five years, the background failure rate is about 70%. The department does not disclose details of its drug policy for applicants in part as a test of candidates' candor. Police Lt. Charles Hank said past marijuana use is not an automatic disqualifier.
Johnson said a smaller pool of prospects is one factor that contributes to the high disqualification rate. The prolonged Iraq war, he said, has snapped up thousands of candidates who might have been drawn to law enforcement.