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Legal Marijuana is Putting Police Dogs Out of Work

In recent years, a growing number of states have been legalizing marijuana, leaving many police dogs to face early retirement. Since canines cannot distinguish between a single joint and a large amount of cannabis, it could compromise narcotics searches.

Moreover, dogs trained to detect both cannabis and illegal drugs alert their handlers in the same way. This means that authorities can no longer use them to establish probable cause for a search. As replacing them would be expensive, retiring them seems like the only logical way forward for police departments across the country.

Police dogs face uncertain future

Last year, two canine officers in Minnesota, a German Shepherd and a Belgian Malinois, bid farewell to their careers in law enforcement, per USA Today. 9-year-old Jango and 10-year-old Cobra, who were already set to retire, moved to patrol work soon after the cannabis legislation in the state came into effect on August 1, 2023.

In Kansas City, Missouri, all drug-sniffing dogs were “discontinued” after cannabis became legal in the state on November 8, 2022, as per the Missouri Independent. Sergeant William Brown, head of the K-9 authority at the Kansas City Police Department, said, “A defense attorney is going to say, ‘Your dog hit on marijuana’ if there’s even one joint, no matter if there was cocaine or whatever else alongside it.”

“Everything becomes fruit of the poisonous trees if we use these K-9s,” he added. With several states legalizing cannabis in the US over the last few years, many police departments have stopped training dogs to detect marijuana.

Captain Brian Leer of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department said, “We had the forethought to stop training marijuana on dogs several years back.”

However, not all departments in the state are planning to give up their canine officers. For instance, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has decided to retain the services of police dogs for various other purposes, including bomb detection and tracking suspects.

Some handlers believe sniffer dogs can be of help in cases where cannabis is still illegal. Sergeant Charles Wall said, “It is our interpretation of Amendment 3 that the odor of marijuana may still establish cause to search in certain situations.”

An expensive affair

One of the major challenges that police departments face is dealing with the numerous costs involved in training canine officers. Typically, a K9 can cost around $10,000-$15,000, but it varies from state to state.

“By the time you spend $14,000 for a dog, then you have to spend $6,500 for a handler’s course, smaller agencies can’t afford that,” William Brown told USA Today.

In Maryland, the cost can go as high as $50,000, according to Talbot County Sheriff Joe Gamble. Additionally, after a dog’s retirement, the department is still liable to pay for their veterinarian costs, which can go up to $10,000.

Accuracy of dogs in detecting drugs

Over the years, there has been a raging debate as to whether drug detection by police dogs is accurate. According to Reason, various K9s across the country have often incorrectly alerted their handlers during narcotics searches.

In many cases, police manipulate sniffer dogs to authorize probable cause for a search, which subsequently leads to authorities seizing cash, vehicles, and other property from the suspect. Dan Viets, an attorney who specializes in marijuana cases, told the Missouri Independent that an alert from a sniffer dog “is absolutely meaningless.”

“If they’ve obtained specific evidence to pursue a search on what they suspect to be illegal marijuana, they don’t need a dog,” he noted. As per USA Today, a 2019 investigation by the Louisville Courier Journal revealed that K9s alerted for drugs in more than half of the 139 traffic stops made since 2017. However, no drugs were found in any of those vehicles.

Lawrence Myers, a former professor at Auburn University, said, “I’ve been an expert witness on I have no idea how many cases involving all sorts of things including drugs.” He also added that “certain officers” consider the canine “as a search warrant on a leash.”

Myers, however, wasn’t entirely dismissive of dogs’ role in detecting drugs, saying K9s “are quite valuable.” He suggested that better training methods could help solve the problem. “There is room for improvement,” he shared. “And there is unfortunately sometimes room for abuse.”

States that legalized cannabis

Recently, Ohio became the 24th state in the country to legalize recreational use of marijuana, according to the Ohio Capital Journal. As per the law, which came into effect on December 7, 2023, adults who are 21 years old or beyond can possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis and grow up to six plants at home. The state has already legalized medical use of the substance back in 2016.

Over the years, efforts to legalize cannabis in the U.S. have seen fruitful results. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize the use of medical cannabis. Since then, the movement to legalize the substance has garnered significant momentum.

Cannabis is now legal for medical use in 38 states, while 24 states and Washington, D.C., along with Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands have legalized the substance for recreational use. At the federal level, however, cannabis continues to remain illegal in the US.

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