Hanging up the K-9 harness

Cannabis legalization has made many drug dogs “obsolete,” bringing about early retirement for K-9 police officers everywhere

Dog sniffing a leaf of marijuana or cannabis. Trained dog looking for drugs.

In 2015, Kevin McKnight was pulled over in Moffat County for a routine traffic stop that ignited a nation-wide conversation about drug dogs—one that would send many K-9 officers into early retirement. 

During McKnight’s traffic stop, Officer Bryan Gonzales brought in his partner, a drug-detecting K-9 officer aptly named Kilo. The highly trained canine had a very specific purpose: to alert at the slightest whiff of heroine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, cocaine or cannabis. And when he approached McKnight’s vehicle he sat down and “pointed”—indicating that there were drugs in the truck, giving Gonzales probable cause to search it. 

Sure enough, the officer found a meth pipe with white residue inside the vehicle. He arrested McKnight, but the ensuing legal battle would determine that Gonzales actually didn’t  have probable cause to search the truck in the first place. Because, even though Kilo had alerted, and even though Gonzales found illegal drug paraphernalia in the car, Kilo couldn’t identify whether he’d smelled meth or if he’d just smelled cannabis—which was also in McKnight’s vehicle. The defense argued that Kilo could have been alerting to the legal substance, making Gonzales’ search and seizure unlawful from the get go.

McKnight was let go—and not long after, so was Kilo. 

That case went to a Colorado Court of Appeals in 2017. And the three-judge panel agreed with the municipal court, ruling that if a drug-sniffing dog is trained to detect marijuana, cops need more cause than a K-9 alert to search a vehicle without permission; any dog trained to find marijuana could compromise the ability to convict someone for illicit drug possession. (Which, in the humble opinion of this cannabis columnist, sounds more like a superpower than any kind of “deficiency.”)

“A lot of drug dogs became obsolete overnight,” Lenny Frieling, a Colorado Criminal Defense Attorney with NORML who specializes in drug-related cases, says. “If [a drug dog] alerts to the smell of pot, what does that mean now? Well, it just means they alerted to the smell of pot. So what? That doesn’t mean anything anymore [in states with legalized cannabis].”

That simple fact has forced a lot of Colorado’s drug dogs into an early retirement in recent years. Because, as Frieling explains, it’s very hard to untrain a dog to detect cannabis. “Pot desensitization training” is not only very costly, very difficult and takes a long time, but it also increases the chances that a dog will make a mistake and muddy up the officer’s basis for probable cause. 

By contrast, using a dog that is “proofed off” marijuana (i.e., a dog that was never trained to detect it) guarantees the animal is only alerting to an illegal substance like cocaine, heroin, meth or ecstasy. 

Arvada Police Officer Brian Laas, president of the Colorado Police K-9 Association, told 9 News that it’s an “absolute detriment” to police dogs if they’re trained to detect marijuana today. 

“More than likely within the next few months to years, there’s no way you’d be able to use [a marijuana] dog for criminal cases,” he told 9 News. One of Laas’ own dogs, a K-9 officer named Beaker, had to be retired early for exactly that reason in 2017. 

Lass estimates that this policy change could have forced as many as 25 of Colorado’s 125 K-9 officers into early retirement (roughly 20% of the state’s drug dogs). For older dogs like Beaker, that’s not such a big deal—but for younger dogs trained just prior to this court ruling, it’s a problem. Fully training a drug detection K-9 officer can cost taxpayers between $10,000-15,000. That’s an expensive asset to cut short of a 5-10 year career. 

This problem isn’t unique to Colorado, either. All across the country, dogs that were trained to detect cannabis nugs are becoming nugatory. Last year, Virginia retired 13 K9 officers early, after the state voted to legalize cannabis. In Massachusetts two of the state’s drug detection dogs were moved to patrol, then retired within 18 months. In Washington, California and Oregon the story is the same. 

“The trend is everywhere,” Don Slavik, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association, commented to the AP. “Once you train a behavior in a dog, that never goes away.”

So what can be done with these highly trained, highly skilled K-9 officers? 

In Washington state, some police dogs have been through marijuana desensitization training, which takes 30 days of intensive re-education as well as daily reinforcements to permanently modify the dog’s behavior. Here, the Colorado K-9 Association has adopted some young police dogs and donated them to police forces where they can still be useful (in prohibition states). 

Most, however, like Kilo and Beaker, are being adopted by their police handlers. They’re no longer busting people and ruining lives for cannabis possession or for possession of any other drug, for that matter. They’re peacefully enjoying early retirement. 

And hopefully, in the not-so-distant future, the rest of America’s police K-9 officers can join them.

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