Drug-Sniffing Police Dogs Change Focus

By Paul Gaita 10/30/17

Decriminalization of marijuana across the country is among the key factors for the K9 units' change of focus.

German Shepherd police drug dogs

A far-ranging article on High Times highlights a growing trend among law enforcement agencies: police departments in several states have phased out marijuana training for drug-sniffing K9 units in favor of harder, more dangerous substances like heroin.

The change reflects not only the increase in legalization efforts across the country, but also legal challenges to the use of dogs in marijuana-related cases. As a result, drug-sniffing dogs with select police departments in Oregon and Washington State are being reassigned to different drug-related tasks.

"I think we saw the writing on the fall after marijuana became legal in Washington and Colorado," said Springfield Sgt. Rich Charboneau, who trained his department's drug dog and four other patrol dogs, in an interview with the The Oregonian. "We thought it could possibly happen here, so we decided we should probably not even train for it."

Instead, Danner, a two-year-old Labrador Retriever that serves as the Springfield department's drug detection dog, has been trained to sniff out heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. That path has been adopted by police in several Washington and Oregon counties, while other departments, including the Washington state police, are putting their dogs through pot desensitization training. The state's Criminal Justice Training Commission has also removed detecting marijuana from the list of requirements in certifying canine units. 

"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 in the Oregonian feature. 

Legalization isn't the only issue affecting how police use K9 drug-sniffing units. A 2015 court ruling in Colorado underscored that drug-sniffing dogs may constitute an infringement of right to privacy, and as such, any evidence gained by such a "search" – as the panel of judges in the case considered such inspection – would be inadmissible in court. The decision has yet to be considered in other states, but a precedent has been set. 

Despite these obstacles, some police departments have yet to make a decision on the future of their drug-sniffing dogs. Both the Portland Police Bureau and Multnomah County Sheriff's Office are waiting for guidelines from the state and district attorney's office on how to proceed with future search and seizure operations. They also aren't planning on buying new dogs not trained for marijuana searches, and plan to still use the existing dogs for cases of large-scale marijuana trafficking, according to the Oregonian. And Washington State still considers possession of marijuana over one ounce a crime for adults.

Retraining the dogs also remains a wait-and-see element for many agencies. Though handlers and trainers are divided on whether a dog can be retrained to either ignore marijuana or focus on other drugs, the cost of buying a drug dog or retraining can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Retraining, or "extinction" training, often requires negative reinforcement, meaning that the dog receives a tug on the leash when it finds a substance the officers are not looking for. Such education could interfere with K9 search-and-seizure operations for other dogs, according to the Oregonian. In some cases, dogs have to be taken out of search efforts altogether.

Springfield Officer Daren Kendrick hopes that if retraining does not work for police dogs, departments will wait to retire them rather than force them out. "Drug-detection dogs will probably never go away," he noted. "But who knows? Maybe in five years, you may be able to count on one hand the amount that can detect marijuana."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.