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Fight over hiring cops who once used drugs

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By his own admission, Ellis Johnson says he's sampled illegal drugs 150 times. He says he's stolen from former employees and even shoved his ex-wife.

Now, he's in training to wear a badge for the Denver Police. To those who accepted him, Mr. Johnson deserves a second chance. But to critics, the recruit's mistakes represent a past too mottled for a future man of the law.

Johnson's case may be extreme, but it is representative of an increasingly common conundrum in the world of public service: Where do you draw the line on past drug use?

In recent years, public figures raised during the 1960s - including Vice President Al Gore, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas - have risen in government despite admissions that they have smoked marijuana. Yet others, such as Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg in 1987, have been rejected or censured.

The different reactions, observers say, illustrate the cyclical nature of America's cultural mores, as well as its evolving willingness to tolerate and forgive.

Here in Denver, they add, the general acceptance of a few puffs of marijuana - but opposition to anything more - may hint at a new standard nationwide.

"This story [of Johnson] might be an indication we're coming back to a nicer balance," says Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Society's pendulum has swung between extremes of permissiveness and intolerance this century, Mr. Campos says. Prohibition in the 1920s is perhaps the classic symbol of repression, while the 1960s illustrated hedonism, and the harsh drug laws of the 1980s represented a backlash.

The current era is producing a more nuanced attitude toward accepting some drug use - within limits. So far, for instance, the American public has not turned against Texas Gov. George W. Bush despite his refusal to deny past drug use.


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