Legalized Pot Causing Changes to States’ K-9 Units

Legalized Pot Causing Changes to States' K-9 Units two police officers with a police dog (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

By Charlie McCarthy | Monday, 07 June 2021 12:49 PM

The legalization of marijuana in an increasing number of states has forced police departments to reassess the role of drug-sniffing K-9s.

A growing number of states, including California, New York, and New Jersey, have allowed marijuana for medical use or have decriminalized the drug.

"Running the dog around somebody's car to try and find a joint, those days are over," Brian Higgins, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and a public safety and security consultant, told Fox News.

John DeCarlo, a policing expert and former police chief in Branford, Connecticut, estimated that about 50,000 K-9s currently work with departments nationwide.

Each dog costs approximately $8,000, plus about $15,000 in training costs on top of the year-to-year expenses and the extra payments toward the personnel enlisted to care for the animals, DeCarlo said.

Police dogs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars over their lifespan and the reliance on them to detect illegal drugs, especially large quantities, is expected to grow, experts said.

The need for dogs to be trained in sniffing out pot, however, is decreasing. In fact, some jurisdictions have the diminished need before marijuana was legalized.

New York State Police is mulling the fate of its marijuana-trained K-9s, a spokesperson told Fox News, as officers have discontinued vehicle and person searches conducted based solely on the scent of marijuana. The department currently has 98 police dogs, 39 of which are trained in detecting marijuana.

Higgins previously served at the helm of New Jersey’s Bergen County Police Department, which provided K-9 services in 70 jurisdictions. He said the need for dogs to detect narcotics still exists, especially for finding "large-scale transportation" and distribution.

"Purely from a narcotics-sniffing standpoint, you’re not going to need as many [K-9s] … compared to what we currently have," Higgins, who retired after 27 years on the job. That said, "cocaine is still going to be illegal, heroin is still a major problem.

"Really, the focus in police has not really been to arrest our way out of it," he added. "It's more for the distribution, weight and the illegal smuggling."

New Jersey law enforcement officials decided to stop training K-9s in detecting marijuana in April 2019 – more than a year before it was legalized.

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said police dogs that already had been taught to sniff out pot could be used for detection in situations where it would still likely be illegal, such as in schools or in correctional facilities, according to an Associated Press report at the time.

Grewal said police could not "un-train" K-9s taught to detect the smell of pot, and training other dogs could be done at a later date if there were a need.

Colorado, in November 2012, became one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. The Colorado State Patrol no longer has any K-9s on the force trained in detecting marijuana, spokesperson Sgt. Blake White said.

"As we introduced new dogs, we did not train them on marijuana," Blake told Fox News. "But financially and logistically, everything, we couldn't just stop using our canines that we had for drug detection, that were trained in marijuana, as well.

"We invest so much money into those dogs, to just say we're done? We couldn't do it."

Blake added that a dog’s scent did not lessen the need for officers to establish probable course with a person suspected of marijuana possession.

"The dog isn't going … to tell us, 'Oh, I smell an ounce’, or ‘I smell half an ounce, or 10 pounds.’ They're going to learn if there's an odor of one of those things that they're trained on," Blake added. "So, that's really where it relied upon the officer to say, 'OK, there's more going on here to develop my probable cause to use this dog, even though they may be trained on marijuana.’"