TThere were times in his career when Police Sergeant. 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. One day, Vaughan was intrigued by CBD, an easily available marijuana derivative, that could offer relief for many of his 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. Others are also affected, including firefighters and heavy-machinery workers as well as 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. You will find CBD-infused cocktails as well as CBD-enhanced tacos on many menus. It is a safe, non-addictive and physically healthy way for people to manage stress and pain associated with their jobs.
However, it is still difficult and complicated to understand the legal, regulatory medical and cultural aspects of cannabis. It is legal in most states for recreational and medical cannabis use. Yet it is considered a controlled Schedule 1 substance—and therefore illegal—on the federal level. Federally-funded research on medical cannabis has been largely stopped because of this.
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. Only a few states have CBD-specific guidelines, according to police departments that were contacted. These include Arizona, California Colorado, Florida Georgia, New York and Texas as well as New York, Texas, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and New York. However, many officers said that the topic keeps coming up, particularly among young officers. Command staff advised their personnel against using 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. It includes representatives from U.S. Border Patrol, Secret Service, FBI and Secret Service. “And, at the moment, that means to refrain from using any CBD product.”
According to Dr. Kevin P. Hill (a Harvard Medical School professor of addiction psychotherapy), the concern is real. For law enforcement, the ambiguity of CBD legal regulations creates a problem.
“The key issues with CBD are purity and potency,” says Hill, who has written several books about medical cannabis.
He explained further that CBD from hemp does not usually result in a negative drug screen. But it can happen. 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. Only one CBD product is approved currently by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat seizure disorders. This includes 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. Hill explained that standard urine tests cannot determine the origin of THC. 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.
Officers are randomly drug tested if they get involved in car accidents, use-of force incidents, misconduct allegations, etc. Most of the officers failing a drug test will be fired and placed on the blacklist for their future jobs as law enforcers. Numbers are hard to find because every state collects their own data.
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.”
Another story is that cops have admitted to taking CBD after being tested positive for THC. After a series of lengthy investigations and testing, some officers are able to keep their job. These are rare 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.”
McQueen asserts that CBD’s effects can vary between individuals and that genetic differences may play an important role. 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.”
High rates of burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder are common among police officers. Around 40% of officers suffer from sleep disorders, which can lead to heart disease, diabetes, depression, and other health problems. A lot of cops have long-term problems with their backs and hips.
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.
CBD is generally harmless and has few adverse side effects. CBD can lead to diarrhea, and in some cases liver dysfunction. Some common prescription drugs may interact with CBD, according to early case studies. CBD could cause excess bleeding when combined with blood thinners, such as Warfarin.
McQueen maintains that CBD is a safe alternative to opioid painkillers and prescription sleeping pills. While research findings vary widely, many studies suggest that around 30% of all police officers are affected by substance abuse. This is the most prevalent.
“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 claims he could’ve used another tool. Vaughan, a 36-year-old officer who was in SWAT training broke a disc in his lower spine. The 36-year-old policeman tried many things, including chiropractic care, chiropractor care, epidurals, cortisone shots, physical therapy and chiropractic care. Finally, surgery was performed. However, the pain didn’t go away fast.
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. The department restricted the use of prescription pain medications.
“There weren’t too many options for me,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
Vaughan served until last year as a Patrol Officer for another agency. According to Vaughan, he lived on just three hours sleep because he worked overnight shifts. “That eventually affects your job performance. You become short-tempered and lose focus.”
He tried melatonin for a time, which is a hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle. However, it didn’t help the already terrible nightmares. He was open to sharing his stories from the streets with officers. He relied heavily on his family and trusted friends for support. He says he looked into yoga and meditation but hasn’t tried either. “The closest to meditation that I’ve done is prayer.”
Vaughan said that he used alcohol as a way to relax during times of stress or after hard work. 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. A recent Ruderman Family Foundation study, which USA Today has received, shows that suicides among police officers are frequently undercounted because of stigma.
“That’s certainly not a path I wanted to go down,” Vaughan says, his eyes scanning the traffic driving by the police station.
Mike Edwards was another officer who worked 11 years in a Metro Detroit Police Department. In 2020, he resigned amid protests against police officers following the death of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.
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.
A few drops of CBD oil were placed under his 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 said that he did extensive research on different CBD oils to verify the products contained traceable levels of THC. Edwards ended up choosing a wide-spectrum hemp-derived CBD oil. He screened for drugs at work several times—always with negative results. He did not inform his bosses that he had been using CBD.
“I have the personal conviction that this was none of their business,” he says. “This was my private medical decision.”
Edwards is sensitive to the fear and apprehension that cops feel about CBD use or discussion. “It’s a shame that red tape can hinder some common sense,” he adds.
Generational shifts and workforce requirements may lead to changes. 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. According to Matt Giordano, executive director of Arizona Peace Officer Standard and Training Board, in 2019, a statement was issued by the board clarifying that officers who have previously used CBD would not be disqualified.
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.
This adjustment comes at a crucial time for police departments struggling to find staff following a wave of mass resignations that left many agencies understaffed.
“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 believes that making CBD-derived hemp federally legal would be a good first step. However, it will require a wider legalization of cannabis for the stigmatization to disappear and a tidal change to take place. “And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Vaughan was able to overcome his obstacles. Vaughan admits to still experiencing back pain every day. But it’s manageable—with lots of exercise and an occasional Tylenol.
Vaughan wants to know more about the benefits CBD could have for police officers. “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.
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