Illegal drug use pares State Patrol recruits

4 percent of applicants as of September rejected for failing to meet standards

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Prescription drug use is paring the pool of trooper candidates in the Washington State Patrol's unprecedented hiring campaign.

The agency is making a big push in the next five years to fill 321 positions as a significant number of employees retire or prepare to do so.

Garnering interest from potential candidates hasn't been a problem. Nearly 2,000 hopefuls have submitted applications for a six-week arming class that prepares them to work in the field. The class will start later this month.

Recruiters, however, have noticed an uptick in otherwise promising candidates who have been denied because they have taken medication that was not prescribed for them.

Most applicants are taking the drugs for legitimate injuries, often accepting a pill from a friend or family member without realizing that it is against the law, officials said. Taking someone else's prescription drugs is a felony.

The WSP processed 1,868 applications as of September and rejected 74 -- or 4 percent -- for failing to meet drug standards. Officials said they don't keep track of how many recruits were barred because of prescription drugs versus illegal drugs.

They do know prescription drugs are the latest setback to hiring.

"People don't think about it. We want applicants to be aware this could affect their application," WSP Sgt. Troy Tomaras said.

At the Tacoma Police Department, 1,649 people applied to join the force this past year. Of those, 165 were turned away for drug issues, having a criminal background or driving issues. About 130 of those rejections were for not meeting drug standards, police spokesman Mark Fulghum said.

The WSP looks at the entire person rather than isolated incidents when conducting background checks, but illegal drug use can be hard to overcome when someone applies to be the one who upholds the law, officials said.

As part of hiring, a medical exam is done to determine any ailments or drugs being used. A polygraph exam also is administered.

"If you roll your ankle playing pickup basketball or get a migraine during finals week, go to your doctor, not your roommate," Capt. Jeff DeVere of the State Patrol's Human Resource Division said.

Drug use isn't the first obstacle the agency has run across in hiring. Months ago, the WSP struggled to find enough recruits who were in good enough shape to pass the physical fitness exam.

The WSP usually hires and trains one class of 60 recruits annually, but the Legislature approved $5 million for an extra patrol academy class this year.