BY DENISE LAVOIE
The Associated Press
RICHMOND, Virginia – In states that legalized marijuana, asking dogs to follow their noses no longer works.
As Virginia prepares to legalize adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana on July 1, police dog sniffing dogs across the state are being forced into early retirement, following a trend in other states where legalization has led to that K-9s deployed to pasture earlier than planned.
In Virginia, the rush to retire marijuana-tracking dogs began even before lawmakers voted to speed up the legalization timeline last month. A separate law, which went into effect in March, prohibits police from stopping or searching anyone based solely on the smell of marijuana.
Virginia State Police are retiring 13 K-9s, while many smaller law enforcement agencies and sheriff’s offices are retiring a dog or two. Most are in the process of buying and training new dogs to only track down illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. Some departments can’t afford up to $ 15,000 to buy and train a new dog, so they are disbanding their K-9 units.
The dogs that have been trained on multiple drugs alert all in the same way, making it impossible to tell if they indicate the presence of marijuana or an illegal drug. The dogs also cannot distinguish between a small, legal amount of marijuana or a larger, still illegal amount of the drug. What this means for the police is that they can no longer be used to determine a likely reason for a search.
“We are not going to use our marijuana trained dogs because that might be a defense a lawyer would take on a client to say, ‘What smell did the K-9 warn about – was it marijuana or was it illegal Drug? ‘”said Bedford County Sheriff Mike Miller.
Using a dog trained to track down all drugs except marijuana can help “make sure they didn’t come across marijuana, that they found heroin or anything else,” Miller said.
Miller’s office has retired a dog and is now using a second dog for tracking and arrest only, not drug detection. His office also bought a new dog that wasn’t trained on the scent of marijuana. This dog is used to identify other drugs. Miller said he’d like to buy a second drug sniff dog but isn’t sure when he’ll find the money in his budget.
Other states that previously legalized marijuana have had to make similar adjustments.
“The trend is everywhere,” said Don Slavik, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association.
“Once you’ve trained a behavior in a dog, it never goes away. They don’t want bugs, so they want to bring in new dogs,” he said.
A 2017 Colorado Appeals Court ruling upheld concerns that using marijuana-trained dogs in places where the drug is legal may not stand up to legal challenges.
Kilo, a Moffat County Sheriff’s Office dog trained on multiple drugs, was alerted on a man’s truck during a traffic obstruction in 2015. The officers found a methamphetamine pipe with white residue on it. The court found that Kilos Alarm was not a reliable indicator of illegal activity because the dog could not distinguish between marijuana and an illegal drug. The court overturned the man’s drug possession conviction, ruling that the police had no legal reason to search his truck. The verdict was later upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court.
In Massachusetts, where marijuana became legal in 2016, the Quincy Police Department moved two dogs from drug detection to patrol work and retired them about 18 months later.
Lt. Bob Gillan, the head of the division’s K-9 unit, said the drug traffickers quickly figured out how to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a search by a dog trained to detect marijuana.
“When they hand over their illegal drugs, marijuana is usually always on fire in the car. Any defense attorney worth their salt says, ‘Well, your dog hit a legal substance’ (not the illegal drugs),” he said.
Sgt. Scott Amos, the Virginia State Police’s dog training coordinator, said with the upcoming July 1 legalization deadline, police are busy training new dogs to recognize MDMA, also known as ecstasy. Cocaine; Heroin; and methamphetamines while also preparing 13 dogs for retirement. Apollo, Aries, Bandit, Blaze, Jax, Kane, Mater, Nina, Reno, Sarge, Donner, Zeus and Zoey will be adopted by their handlers, Amos said.
Cumberland County Sheriff Darrell Hodges said his office was recently forced to retire his drug-detecting K-9, a Belgian Malinois named Mambo. He said his 17-person department doesn’t have the money to buy and train a new dog.
“You work with them day in and day out and they become a part of you and just taking it away is pretty difficult,” he said.
Hodges said everything went well for Mambo, who was adopted by his handler.
“The dog actually lives a wonderful life,” he said. “He’s got his own bedroom in a house and he’s spoiled.”