July 29, 2022
The widely available cannabis derivative could help police officers get relief from stress, insomnia and chronic pain. But using it puts their job in jeopardy.
By Katja Ridderbusch
There were moments in the past few years when Police Sgt. Brian Vaughan would have tried almost anything to break the cycle of sleeplessness that wore him down—to wash away the images, sounds, and smells of violence that stuck to his memory, and ease the constant pain that was shooting through his back. At one point, he found himself tempted to try CBD, a widely available cannabis derivative that can offer relief from many ailments.
“It would have been great to be able to take it and see if it helps,” says Vaughan, a 14-year law enforcement veteran and training coordinator for the police department in Dallas, Georgia, a small city northwest of Atlanta. But he didn’t. “It’s just not worth the risk.”
That risk is testing positive for trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the mind-altering compound in cannabis—a career-ender in most law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Vaughan’s dilemma is echoed by cops across the country. Other professions are affected as well, like firefighters, heavy machinery workers, and airline pilots.
CBD is sold in supermarkets, pharmacies, and health food stores, and it’s offered in gyms, bars, and restaurants. It comes in many forms—oils, lotions, tinctures, capsules, or chewable gummies. Menus feature CBD-enhanced tacos and CBD-infused cocktails. Many people see it as a physically safe and non-addictive way to deal with job-associated stress and pain.
Still, the legal, regulatory, medical, and cultural landscape of cannabis, including CBD, remains complicated and confusing to navigate, with plenty of muddy spots. Cannabis is now legal for medical use in many states and recreational use in some. Yet it is considered a controlled Schedule 1 substance—and therefore illegal—on the federal level. Because of this status, federally funded research into medical cannabis is largely blocked.
CBD—short for cannabidiol—is extracted from the hemp or the marijuana plant. Both belong to the cannabis family, but hemp-based CBD typically contains lower levels of THC, and it doesn’t create a “high.” The 2018 Farm Bill made hemp-derived CBD legal if it contains less than 0.3% THC.
It’s those trace levels of THC that make the risk real for people like Vaughan, the police officer from Georgia.
Most of the approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S.—federal, state, and local—have policies that strictly prohibit the use of controlled substances such as opioids, methamphetamines, cocaine, and cannabis. Police departments contacted in a handful of states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New York, Texas, and Vermont, do not have guidelines explicitly addressing CBD. But several said the issue keeps coming up more frequently now, especially among younger officers, and command staff would advise their employees against taking CBD.
Any substance that causes an impairment—or creates the perception of impairment—“is a strict liability issue for us,” says Chief Brian Peete of the police department in Montpelier, Vermont, a state where recreational and medical cannabis are legal.
“Because CBD is still such a gray area, we tell the men and women we represent to err on the side of caution,” seconds Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. The group represents members from agencies like the FBI, the Secret Service, and U.S. Border Patrol. “And, at the moment, that means to refrain from using any CBD product.”
The concern is valid, says Dr. Kevin P. Hill, a professor of addiction psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The ambiguity and uncertainty of the legal landscape surrounding CBD create a conundrum for law enforcement.
“The key issues with CBD are purity and potency,” says Hill, who has written several books about medical cannabis.
Typically, using hemp-derived CBD products does not lead to a positive drug screen, he further explains. Yet sometimes, it happens. Depending on the plant variety as well as harvesting and refinement techniques, the THC level can be higher than the federally legal limit—which makes CBD a legal product with a potentially illegal ingredient.
Also, Hill says that most CBD marketed in the United States is “essentially unregulated or very loosely regulated.” In fact, only 30 % of commercially available CBD products are accurately labeled, according to a research letter published in JAMA. And only one specific CBD formula is currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a medication to treat certain seizure disorders, especially in children.
Purified CBD, with zero or untraceable amounts of THC, exists, Hill emphasizes—but finding credible manufacturers requires a lot of research by consumers.
Testing doesn’t always provide a clear picture, either. Standard urine screens cannot identify the source of THC, Hill explains. They can’t distinguish, for example, whether the THC comes from rubbing CBD oil on a sore elbow or lighting up a joint. Timing is another issue, as it’s difficult to determine when THC was ingested.
Police officers are drug-screened randomly or any time they are involved in a car accident, a use-of-force incident, or a misconduct allegation. Most officers who fail a drug test are fired and blacklisted for future law enforcement jobs. Since every jurisdiction collects its own data, numbers are difficult to track.
Among federal law enforcement officers, which make up between 3-4% of the country’s entire police force, “we saw about 60 cases in the last two to three years,” says union president Cosme, “and it seems like the numbers have been rising.”
There have also been more reports of cops who, after testing positive for THC, admitted they had taken CBD with the belief that it contained no THC. Some keep their jobs after a battery of tests and lengthy internal investigations. But those are exceptions.
“The burden of proof is always on the officer who tests positive,” warns Vaughan, the training coordinator from Georgia who also handles critical incident response for his agency. Even if a failed drug screen doesn’t lead to termination, he says it’s a situation that’s “very hard to recover from.” It could impact a cop’s future career, including promotions and pay raises.
The specter of a positive drug screen, combined with the lack of a regulated CBD industry, “tends to keep CBD off the radar screens of many law enforcement administrators,” says Chris Harvey, deputy executive director of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, the state’s accreditation agency for cops. Even though CBD could be “a useful tool for people serving in sensitive law enforcement positions,” he adds.
There is plenty of anecdotal and some scientific evidence that CBD is effective in helping with a range of conditions that cops typically struggle with, says Cydney McQueen, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
While federally funded studies on medical cannabis are still limited because of its status as a Schedule 1 substance, McQueen says, “we’re seeing more data and clinical trials involving CBD.”
The effect of CBD varies between patients, and genetic differences play a big role, McQueen says. Still, early studies suggest that “for a significant number of people, CBD can be helpful in soothing certain types of chronic pain, improving sleep, and decreasing anxiety.”
Police officers experience high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout. About 40% of cops suffer from a sleep disorder, which puts them at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. Many develop long-term back and hip problems.
McQueen says there’s research underway to examine the effect of CBD on driving, “which obviously is critical for law enforcement.” A small Australian study recently found that CBD use “is unlikely to impair driving performance.”
Trials have also shown that cannabidiol doesn’t lead to withdrawal symptoms and is not addictive, McQueen adds.
Generally, adverse effects from CBD tend to be minor. Taken in higher doses, it can cause diarrhea and, in rare cases, liver function problems. Early case studies suggest that CBD interacts with some common prescription medications. Taken with blood thinners like warfarin, CBD can potentially lead to excessive bleeding.
Still, McQueen insists CBD could be a benign alternative compared to, for example, opioid painkillers, prescription sleeping pills, and above all, alcohol. Research results vary, but some studies estimate that up to 30% of police officers have a substance abuse problem. Alcohol dependence is on top of the list.
“CBD is not a panacea,” McQueen says. “But it’s good to have another tool in the tool bag of potential treatments”—especially if combined with non-medication approaches like exercise, peer-to-peer support, and professional counseling.
Vaughan says he could have used another tool. In 2018, the 36-year-old policeman ruptured a disc in his lower back during SWAT training. He tried physical therapy, chiropractic care, epidurals, and cortisone shots, and he finally had surgery. Still, the pain was slow to subside.
Being a cop—engaging in physical altercations, sitting for long hours in a patrol car, and wearing some 30 extra pounds of weapons and tools on the duty belt—did not help. Taking prescription pain medication was restricted by department policy.
“There weren’t too many options for me,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
Vaughan, who served as a patrol officer for a different agency until last year, says he also experienced bouts of insomnia, burnout, and what he now believes was post-traumatic stress. He says working overnight shifts had him living on just a few hours of sleep. “That eventually affects your job performance. You become short-tempered and lose focus.”
For a while, he took melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, but it only exacerbated the nightmares he was already having. He shared with other officers some of his experiences on the street. He relied on family support and leaned on a few trusted friends. He says he looked into yoga and meditation but hasn’t tried either. “The closest to meditation that I’ve done is prayer.”
During periods of high stress and after particularly grueling shifts, Vaughan says he sometimes turned to alcohol to calm his racing mind. He quickly realized that wasn’t a solution. Over his career, he’s seen peers go from self-medication to self-destruction to self-harm and, in some cases, suicide. Last year alone, 136 law enforcement officers reportedly took their lives—more than twice the number of cops killed by gunfire. And a recent study from the Ruderman Family Foundation, provided to USA Today, suggests that police suicides are often undercounted due to stigma.
“That’s certainly not a path I wanted to go down,” Vaughan says, his eyes scanning the traffic driving by the police station.
Another officer, Mike Edwards, worked for 11 years at a metro Detroit police department. He quit in 2020 amid anti-police protests following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.
While still on active duty, he became a social media influencer on all things police, branding himself as “Mike the Cop.” In 2019, he says, he decided to try CBD to help with stress, trouble sleeping, and especially muscle aches after Brazilian jiu-jitsu practice, he says.
He took a CBD tincture, a few drops under the tongue. “After two or three weeks, I didn’t need ibuprofen after jiu-jitsu training anymore,” he recalls. He also noticed that the usual swelling went down and felt the “recovery from the physical wear and tear of grappling was quicker.”
Edwards says he researched a lot of different CBD brands to make sure the product contained no traceable amounts of THC. He ended up using a broad-spectrum, hemp-derived CBD oil. He screened for drugs at work several times—always with negative results. He also chose not to tell his superiors he was taking CBD.
“I have the personal conviction that this was none of their business,” he says. “This was my private medical decision.”
But Edwards understands the apprehension and fear that many cops have about using or even discussing CBD. “It’s a shame that red tape can hinder some common sense,” he adds.
Change may be on the horizon, driven by workforce needs and generational shifts. According to Savannah State University research, more than 25% of police departments in the U.S. have relaxed their screening criteria for new hires’ past drug use, especially cannabis. In 2019, the Arizona Peace Officer Standard and Training Board issued a statement clarifying that police officer applicants would no longer be disqualified if they previously used CBD, explains executive director Matt Giordano.
Until that point, CBD had been put in the same category as marijuana, meaning that aspiring police officers in Arizona—as in many other states to this day—were barred from applying for up to seven years if they had previously used cannabis.
The adjustments come at a time when police departments are struggling to fill their ranks after a recent wave of mass resignations left many agencies short-staffed.
“These young recruits come in telling us, ‘Yeah, I put some CBD oil on my knee before I went for a run last weekend,’” says Giordano. “For them, it’s normal.”
An increased focus on cops’ physical, emotional, and mental health could also promote change—not just for new hires but for cops already on the force.
“The unique roles and responsibilities of police officers require rigorous performance standards,” says Harvey from Georgia’s standards and training board. “But a reasonable exploration of new treatments should not be dismissed reflexively.”
Cosme, the federal police association president, believes that CBD holds promise for officers’ health. He says that “agencies need to adapt their guidelines on CBD use”—once there’s clear regulatory guidance.
McQueen says making hemp-based CBD federally legal is an important first step, but it will take broader cannabis legalization for a tidal shift to occur and the stigma to fade. “And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Vaughan eventually pushed through his challenges. His back pain is still there every day, he says. But it’s manageable—with lots of exercise and an occasional Tylenol. He would like to see more research into the potential benefits of CBD for cops. “Like any other tool in law enforcement, this needs to be heavily evaluated before we put it into practice,” he says—before it becomes an accepted and safe option for police officers to use.
© TIME / Katja Ridderbusch