What Will Happen to Drug-sniffing Dogs if Weed is Legalized?

drug-sniffing dog lies next to police handler
A police officer and his police dog.

Drug-sniffing dogs have been a crucial part of the war on drugs for decades. Their sharp noses have incriminated countless individuals in cases of possession. These highly-trained K-9's have led to thousands of drug busts involving dangerous narcotics, like cocaine and heroin, but they've also destroyed the lives of countless individuals who were carrying a bit of bud on them. Now that cannabis legalization is creeping across the country, United States police forces have to figure out what to do with their drug-sniffing dogs.

Changes in the Legal Landscape

Cases brought on by drug-sniffing dogs have always been somewhat contentious. In 2011, a comprehensive collection of information by the Chicago Tribune revealed that drug dogs are only correct 44 percent of the time. The other 56 percent of the time, officers alerted by their K-9's were unable to find any traces of drugs or paraphernalia. Even worse, the dogs' accuracy rate when sniffing around the cars of Latinos was only 27 percent.

In combination with the legality of weed in Colorado, drug-sniffing dogs' inaccurate track record has led to firm legal decisions on the matter. In 2017, the Colorado Court of Appeals set a new precedent: Signals from drug-sniffing dogs don't constitute enough probable cause for searching someone's vehicle. Police K-9's are trained to sniff for meth, heroin, cocaine, and cannabis, which contradicts the reasonable right to privately carry up to an ounce of weed as per Colorado law

A Savage Suggestion

It's becoming more obvious that the current force of drug-sniffing police dogs is rapidly approaching obsolescence in states with legal cannabis. So, what's going to happen to all those highly-trained professional pups? According to an Illinois K-9 Training Academy director, Chad Larner, they'll euthanize most of them if they aren't sociable enough.

In softer terms, Normal's Assistant Police Chief Steve Petrilli told the Pantagraph his department's dogs are already trained on a few specific odors.

"Once they're programmed with that, you can't just deprogram them," he said. "I think the implications of that would be huge."

Petrilli's statement was so far off the mark that Decatur's Chief of Police had to sweep through afterward and tell the Chicago Tribune "It was a bad choice of words, and it's a statement (Larner) wishes he didn't make. There are so many uses for these dogs." He believes the dogs "are going to work with us for a long, long time."

What Happens Next?

Despite sensationalist claims like Larner's, more police officers and officials have spoken out to reassure the outraged public. Even though some dogs can't be retrained to ignore the smell of marijuana, they can still be of great use in missing persons, search and rescue, and other crucial operations. Many of the dogs are social enough to live a happy life of retirement with their handlers.

California has embraced its dilemma and opted to phase out its current ranks of drug-sniffing dogs. As the old guard curls up at home, a new generation of dogs is training to sniff out drugs with marijuana off the detection list. It can take up to four months and $22,000 to train just one drug-sniffing dog, so it's understandable why cops are worried. But phasing out these now-overqualified K-9's and training the next class to ignore state-legal cannabis is the only common sense solution to avoid civil liberty violations.