Special Report: Pot legalization creates need for a new breed of K9

Traditionally, dogs in Oregon were trained to sniff out four drugs: meth, heroin, cocaine and marijuana. However, when the state legalized pot in 2015, it created an unintended problem for K9 handlers.

Posted: Sep 26, 2019 6:10 PM
Updated: May 3, 2021 12:00 PM

EUGENE, Ore. -- Drug-sniffing K9s have been used by law enforcement agencies for decades and continue to play an important role in fighting illegal drugs.

However, the legalization of marijuana in Oregon in 2015 has had unintended consequences for the state's police dogs, which were traditionally trained to detect four drugs: methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and marijuana.

Agencies across the state of Oregon said they could not do a lot of their work without the help of these police dogs.

"People that smuggle drugs get really sophisticated in their methods of concealing it," Clay Core with Oregon State Police said. "They put it in their compartments and hide it really well in different locations, and so without the aid of the dog, we wouldn't find most of it.”

When a drug dog hits on a certain smell, it's enough to give police probable cause, which can trigger a criminal investigation.

However, legalization of marijuana has created new challenges for those investigating and prosecuting drug crimes, as many police dogs have been trained to detect pot along with other drugs.

The problem? The way police dogs alert officers to the presence of drugs, no matter the drug, is always the same, making it impossible to know if the drug detected is legal or illegal.

"Dogs that are trained already to smell for marijuana, it can complicate things for some agencies as far as case law and being able to search for other narcotics," Brian Humphreys with the Springfield Police Department said.

Brook Reinhard, an attorney with the Lane County Public Defender’s Office, said using marijuana-sniffing dogs can cause legal challenges in prosecutions.

"It's unlikely that the court would allow the dog's behavior to constitute a legal basis for police searching because of what the dog did,” Reinhard said.

In the last few years, departments all across the state have been forced to adjust. In many cases, this has meant training new dogs.

So, what happens to the dogs that were trained to search for marijuana? Oregon State Police decided to phase them out because retraining them didn't make sense.

"There's different theories when you talk about training a dog to no longer find marijuana, and we didn't feel comfortable with trying to do extinction training or train them to do a different response at the time to the odor of marijuana so we decided to retire the dogs,” Core said.

However, the Springfield Police Department actually trained one of their two drug sniffing K9s to sniff for it after it became legal.

“Our four-odor dog is irreplaceable and serves a very functional purpose here,” Humphreys said.

This includes finding marijuana inside jails and schools as well as in direct investigations where a search warrant already exists. As for traffic stops, the dogs are normally off the case.

“That's not a tool that law enforcement can use, and any evidence that is found as a result of that is likely to be suppressed or thrown out,” Reinhard said.

Officials told KEZI 9 News there are only six dogs left in the entire state of Oregon that are trained to sniff for marijuana since the legalization of pot. They said before it became legal, there were between 60 and 70 of them.

But replacing these dogs is not cheap.

The Springfield Police Department said it can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 to buy and train these K9s. They said it all depends on where they are bought. 

This makes these K9s a huge commitment, which is why many of these dogs facing early retirement because of marijuana being legalized is hard on agencies.

“Retiring your dog before you anticipate it makes it difficult because we invest a lot of time and money into these dogs, and the handlers have a great bond with these dogs. Luckily, we are able to retire almost all of them, and the handlers were able to keep them at that time,” Core said.

Humphreys with Springfield police said the dogs are incredibly important to their handlers.

“We spend more time with our dogs than we do with our family because that dog is truly a part of your life 24/7,” Humphreys said.

As for the dogs who used to make a living detecting pot, they're enjoying an early retirement, making way for new laws and a new breed of K9s.

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