With nearly half of the United States legalizing cannabis for medicinal or recreational use, policy makers and law enforcement officials have to alter training and procedures more than ever. Yet even in states that have legalized possessing small amounts of cannabis, being stopped by police while having it in your vehicle can still be a hassle. Oregon is hoping to fix this issue by no longer training their dogs to detect marijuana.
Once Measure 91 is enacted in July, Oregon residents over 21 will be able to legally carry up to an ounce of cannabis while in public and up to 8 ounces in their homes, thus making drug dogs less necessary.
“I think we saw the writing on the wall after marijuana became legal in Washington and Colorado,” Springfield Oregon Police Sgt. Rich Charboneau said in an interview with Oregon Live. “We thought it could possibly happen here, so we decided we probably should not even train for it.”
It’s estimated that Oregon has 150 police dogs with a third of them specifically trained to find drugs. Police all over the country have utilized the practice of training canines to detect everything from humans to bombs to drugs for over a century. In the U.S. these animals have become synonymous with narcotics and are generally termed “drug dogs,” as the bulk of their training involves detecting cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and cannabis.
The “four-scent” drug training technique is designed to teach dogs to seek out the scent of all drugs; however the signals that these dogs use to alert their trainers are the same regardless of the drug. By no longer training canines to sniff out cannabis, a plethora of legal issues surrounding searches will not exist due to a drug dog alerting officers to a legal amount of marijuana. Until Measure 91 goes into effect, the Oregon District Attorneys have instructed all police departments to continue with marijuana cases as normal.
“This is a conversation every agency with a drug detection dog is having or has had for several months now and how it’s being addressed varies from agency to agency,” said Springfield Officer Daren Kendrick, President of the Oregon Police Canine Association. “But police work is like the ocean, we have to go with the flow and always be able to adapt to changing technologies and laws to help the community.”
Although some police departments have begun accepting canines that no longer detect pot, larger police departments such as the Portland Police Bureau and the Multnomah County Sheriffs have stated that they will not cease four-scent method training because it still needs to be utilized for large trafficking searches.
“We are waiting on some guidelines from the state and (district attorney’s) office on how the new law will affect search and seizure,” Portland Sergeant Pete Simpson said to Oregon Live. “But until we get those answers, we aren’t going to buy new dogs that are not trained for marijuana.”
Dogs that can detect illegal substances can be quite expensive to purchase, as some cost up to $10,000. Training is also costly as the animals spend up to eight weeks being trained and receive more training throughout the animal’s career.
In areas where cannabis has been legalized, dogs that have been trained to detect it will be retired, adopted into civilian homes or reassigned to departments across the country that still punish marijuana possession.
According to Clackamas County Sheriff Sergeant Don Boone, re-training dogs to omit marijuana detection during their searches isn’t cost-effective or intelligent. Normally, police dogs begin four-scent training with cannabis detection due to the odor of marijuana being easier to stamp. Dogs are rewarded for their successful detection. However, in order to change the behavior the dog would have to unlearn to associate a reward with detecting cannabis — which may interfere in the search for other drugs.
It’s “more trouble than it’s worth,” Boone said.
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