Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks: Marijuana Legalization Sends Drug-Sniffing Dogs Into Early Retirement

Earlier this month, medical marijuana was legalized in Missouri. Medical marijuana legalization threatens the use of drug dogs trained to detect marijuana in the state.

Are the Dog Days Over?

Any search of a vehicle must be supported by probable cause. The officer must be able to point to facts or circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe evidence or contraband relating to criminal activity will be found in the vehicle. Law enforcement in all states employ highly trained drug detection dogs to sniff vehicles stopped by police.

In Florida v. Harris (2013), the Supreme Court of the United States issued a unanimous decision that a drug dog’s training and certification are adequate indicators of his reliability, and a dog’s alert provides probable cause to search a vehicle.

Last year, the Colorado Court of Appeals set a new precedent for drug cases. A panel of three judges ruled that officers using drug dogs trained to sniff marijuana and other drugs need a stronger reason to search a car without permission.

The ruling stemmed from a 2015 case involving a narcotics dog, Kilo. Kilo alerted to the smell of illegal drugs from a man’s truck. But Kilo was trained to detect marijuana, among other drugs. The Colorado Court of Appeals overturned the man’s drug conviction, and ruled that Kilo could not tell the officers whether he smelled marijuana or another drug in the man’s truck.

Next month, the Colorado Supreme Court will review the Court of Appeals decision.

You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.

You can’t tell a Police K-9 who has been trained to detect marijuana to ignore marijuana just because it is legal now. Approximately 20% of all drug dogs in the United States are trained to detect marijuana. Now they are forced into early retirement. Older dogs, even if they undergo training to stop reacting to marijuana, would still face intense scrutiny to prove if they made a false hit. Any criminal defense attorney is going to ask, “Has your dog ever alerted to marijuana?”

In Canada, where retail marijuana sales began last month, 14 narcotics dogs were retired.

But New Dogs Can Learn New Tricks.

Some states, such as California, Oregon, Maine, and Vermont, have been training their drug dogs to detect cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and ecstasy. But not marijuana.

The President of Colorado’s Police K-9 Association revealed that most drug dogs cost between $6,000 to $10,000 alone, and that’s without training. Small departments just cannot afford to replace these high-priced marijuana-trained dogs with non-marijuana certified dogs. In the meantime, these small units can wait until they build up the funding to replace their drug dogs with non-marijuana certified dogs.

These small departments have a few other options. First, they can keep using their marijuana trained dogs and take their chances in court. Second, they can transfer the dog to places in the state where marijuana is still off limits, such as schools and jails. Third, they can work with law enforcement in states where marijuana is still illegal to put the drug dogs back on the road detecting marijuana.

It will be interesting to see whether law enforcement in Missouri replace their marijuana-trained dogs or keep using them. We will continue monitoring Missouri courts to see if they rule on this issue.

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