Police Departments Telling K9 Units to ‘Sit and Stay’

Until that law-enforcement mission goes the way of the dodo and Conestoga wagon--or until all drugs are legalized--drug dogs will remain relevant, and gainfully employed.

What happens to K9 cops when cannabis is decriminalized? For the most part, not much — departments aren’t planning to part with drug dogs any time soon.


Humans of the 21st century think highly of our pets — almost as highly as we think of ourselves. So now that drug-policy reform is swelling government budgets and thinning prisons, some people are asking, “won’t someone think of the drug-sniffing dogs?”

Colorado Public Radio is the latest to examine the question of what to do with K9 units in an era of drug-policy reform. Marijuana is legal in Colorado, CPR points out, so what’s the use of a dog trained to suss out marijuana?

There are legal as well as practical questions at play here: Drug dogs tell police only where “drugs” are found — without the ability to inform their handlers (with a few Lassie-like barks) whether the drug in question is a legal substance like cannabis or something else, like meth, heroin or cocaine.

Nor can dogs alert police to the amount of the drug found — a crucial detail when dealing with legal marijuana, which is generally legal up to certain amounts. Is it a gram? An ounce? Two ounces? The dogs don’t know, and if they do they aren’t talking.

This issue has come up in the courts. The Colorado Court of Appeals recently found that people in lawful possession of marijuana have a reasonable expectation of privacy, meaning a drug dog’s alert by itself is not sufficient cause to enact a search. Courts in other legal states like Massachusetts have come to similar conclusions; police need visible evidence of drug-related wrongdoing — a visible impairment, like slurred speech — before a search and arrest can ensue under the Fourth Amendment, which limits “unreasonable search and seizure.”

And you don’t need a dog for that, so the dog’s utility is reduced — at least in theory.

Drug dogs are expensive assets: K9 units can cost as much as $15,000 — an investment police departments expect to last up to a decade. So some police and sheriff’s departments are pivoting by retraining their animals.

Traditionally, most drug-sniffing dogs are “four-odor” animals: They detect marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Police dogs in Oregon and in Massachusetts are now becoming “three-odor animals,” retrained to drop marijuana from their resumes. Others are simply being redeployed to places where marijuana legalization doesn’t apply, like the prison or school systems.

Drug dogs can also be deployed — without violating any court orders or constitutional protections — to post offices, because shipping marijuana (or any other drug) is still a federal crime.

However, most police departments plan to hang onto their beloved German Shepherds. Why? Dogs don’t just alert to a package of heroin stuffed into the wheel well of a rental car; they also alert to stashes of cash — and for police, cash is king.

As the Supreme Court has affirmed, most currency in America has enough drug residue to trigger an alert from a drug dog. And as police watchdogs like journalist Radley Balko have observed, any amount of money can be seized from a citizen, whether or not a crime has been committed, by simply bringing in a dog to smell what everybody knows is already there — then deposit the cash directly into the police department’s budget through civil asset forfeiture.

This widely derided practice has been the subject of recent reforms, reforms that Donald Trump’s Justice Department has promised to roll back.

So let’s go back to Colorado, where you, a law-abiding citizen, have just pulled out of the dispensary parking lot. You have a few grams of cannabis on you and you also have some money. But were you speeding? Was a taillight out? Were you “acting suspiciously” in an “area with known drug-dealing activity”? These are all “legitimate” reasons for a police officer to pull you to the side of the road and — if they deem it necessary — deploy a drug-sniffing dog to detect the scent of a seizure.

Until that law-enforcement mission goes the way of the dodo and Conestoga wagon — or until all drugs are legalized — drug dogs will remain relevant, and gainfully employed.

TELL US, should police departments in decriminalized states repurpose or retire K9 units?

Chris Roberts has written about medical cannabis, drug policy, and legalization ever since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009, with bylines for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cbloggy.

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