ELLSWORTH — The Hancock County Sheriff’s Office is looking into the possibility of drug testing law enforcement and corrections officer applicants within the year, Sheriff Scott Kane told county commissioners at a meeting on Tuesday.
“The first step is to do pre-employment,” said Kane, and look at what other agencies have in place for random testing of employees.
The contract for patrol officers runs out in January, Kane added, and the department should “Stay ahead of the curve and implement it.”
Commissioners approved Kane’s plan to look at what it would take to implement such a policy for law enforcement and corrections officers.
“It’s a very complex project so it’s going to take some time to put it together,” said Kane.
A third-party would have to do the testing, and there are legal issues and medical privacy concerns to take into account.
Then there’s the issue of marijuana.
“We house federal prisoners and marijuana is still illegal under the federal guidelines,” said Kane. “I don’t know if that would affect us.”
Although more than 400 private employers in Maine have drug-testing police, very few police officers in the state are tested for drugs, either before they apply or in the line of duty, according to The Portland Press Herald.
Only 13 municipalities in the state list any universal drug-testing policy, and only one town — Baileyville in Washington County — performs pre-employment drug screens, testing with probable cause to suspect employee drug use and random testing.
Of those 13 municipalities with a universal drug-testing policy, only two are for police departments: Houlton Police have conducted pre-employment drug screenings since 2007, and the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy in place since 1998.
But questions about whether or not to drug-test police arose around the state after a Lewiston officer died of a fentanyl overdose in February. The South Portland Police Department implemented a random drug testing policy for officers on July 1 and has been conducting pre-employment drug tests on all job applicants for several years.
“In order to go to the [Maine State Police Academy] you have to complete a polygraph and a psych evaluation,” said Kane. “I think this follows along with it.”
Kane suggested it might be a good idea to eventually implement drug testing for all county employees.
But commissioners suggested sticking to law enforcement and corrections and “At some point address this issue for the rest of the county employees,” said Commissioner Bill Clark.
But while many departments are discussing increased drug testing for recruits and employees, law enforcement agencies around the country are relaxing policies toward past drug use in an effort to fill a slew of vacancies.
Those who have injected heroin or smoked crack may now have a shot at being a police officer in New Orleans, and city council members in New York recently approved a bill that would bar most employers from forcing applicants to take a marijuana test, according to The New York Times.
Maryland regulators have eased restrictions on past marijuana use, according to the Baltimore Sun, and Ellsworth police also may also be willing to overlook past use of harder drugs such as cocaine.
Kane told commissioners the idea for a policy arose after the officer died in Lewiston and that he didn’t have reason to suspect any employee was using illegal substances.
“What I’m looking at is the liability issue if — God forbid —one of the officers were involved in a deadly shooting,” said Kane. “I don’t want to be surprised by anything.”