If Illinois Legalizes Marijuana, What Happens To Pot-Sniffing Dogs

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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Caruso

If Illinois legalizes marijuana for recreational use, law enforcement officials fear job losses for hundreds of officers — specifically, the four-legged ones.

Agencies spend thousands of dollars and months of training to teach their dogs how to sniff out and alert officers to the presence of marijuana, heroin, cocaine and other drugs. If pot use becomes legal, the dogs would likely either have to be retrained — which some handlers say is impossible or impractical — or retired.

“The biggest thing for law enforcement is, you’re going to have to replace all of your dogs,” said Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett, whose private foundation paid $2.2 million in 2016 to support K-9 units in 33 counties across Illinois. “So to me, it’s a giant step forward for drug dealers, and it’s a giant step backwards for law enforcement and the residents of the community.

“It gives the bad guys one more way to beat law enforcement.”

The concerns come as lawmakers weigh whether to make Illinois the tenth state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. The state decriminalized possession of a small amount in 2016; having up to 10 grams of marijuana is a civil offense punishable by a fine between $100 and $200. The state in 2015 implemented a medical marijuana pilot program, with a limited list of qualifying conditions, that is set to expire in 2020.

Supporters say legalization would bring in much-needed revenue for a state long mired in financial problems, while opponents say they worry about cannabis acting as a gateway to other, harder drugs for some users. They also point to federal law, which prohibits marijuana use and classifies it as a schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin and LSD.

For states that have legalized marijuana, police have taken different approaches to the K-9 problem. Officers in parts of Washington state have either attempted to retrain their animals to ignore pot or, for new police dogs, taught them to smell all narcotics other than cannabis. In other states, some agencies have kept their pot-sniffing dogs and continued to search for large amounts of the drug not allowed under the law, although a recent legal challenge could soon change that.

Rob Madden, a sergeant for the Colorado State Patrol, said officers were already mindful not to use the agency’s seven police dogs as a crutch. Legalization cemented that training.

“Our K-9 handlers have never been reliant on the K-9s,” he said, adding that officers also rely on their sense of smell, observation of suspicious activity and any visible clues to determine whether a search is needed.

Chad Larner, training director of the K-9 Training Academy in Macon County, dismissed the idea of retraining dogs, saying it would amount to “extreme abuse” to change their mindset. K-9s are rewarded for successfully alerting to the presence of narcotics, and they continue to train regularly with their handlers for a suggested minimum of 16 hours a month.

In addition, there is no guarantee that the dogs could be broken of their original training, which would contradict the main priority for K-9 handlers.

“We do not want to subject innocent citizens or motorists who travel through Illinois … to unlawful search and seizures. That is our main priority,” Larner said. “So in my professional position as a trainer, I could not 100 percent, unequivocally, tell a passenger who uses our roads that the dog will not alert to a scent that it has known its entire life for a treat.”

Extensive training

There are about 275 certified narcotic detection K-9s in Illinois, Larner said. Most of the dogs are dual-purpose, meaning they are trained in finding drugs as well as tracking and apprehending suspects and missing persons.

Buffett and Larner both said it is likely all of the dogs would have to be retired and replaced if pot were legalized. Sgt. Dan Wise, K-9 coordinator for the Decatur Police Department, agreed that it would be very difficult to teach the dogs to ignore odors that they have been trained to recognize since they were about a year old.

“The ability to take that odor out of their skill set, I think, would be really tough and it would probably not be the most reliable way to go about it,” he said.

Training a K-9 can take anywhere from eight to 16 weeks and cost between $3,000 to $5,000, not including the time commitment, overtime costs or advanced training. Depending on the dog’s breed, training and purpose, the price of an animal can range anywhere from $8,000 to $16,000 each.

Replacing all of the K-9 units in the state would cost millions, which Buffett said would fall on each individual law enforcement agency.

Because many K-9s are trained not to be social so that their work won’t be affected, Larner said a number of dogs would likely have to be euthanized.

Dan Linn, executive director of the marijuana advocacy group Illinois NORML, called the suggestion that the dogs would be put to sleep a “red herring.”

If Illinois legalizes marijuana, it would likely follow other states in allowing only a small amount for adults, he said. He argued that nothing would prevent law enforcement agencies from pursuing drug dealers and cartels that traffick large quantities of cannabis and other narcotics.

“The idea that legalizing for adults to have an ounce on them will equal to all these dogs being euthanized, that seems kind of ridiculous and hyperbolic,” he said.

Madden, the sergeant from Colorado, said he could not recall any K-9s with the state troopers being euthanized.

Wise said Decatur police would make sure to find a good use for the department’s four dual-purpose dogs in case of legalization. Retired dogs often live with their handlers and their families, he said, and the department would not euthanize a dog upon its retirement.

“We will find other valid uses for the dog, even if marijuana were to be an odor that they would never be concerned with for the remainder of their life,” he said.

Legal challenge

Recent court cases in Colorado have further complicated the K-9 question.

The Colorado Court of Appeals last year found in favor of a man who was arrested in 2015 after officers searched his vehicle and found a meth pipe with white residue. Officers searched his vehicle after being alerted by a K-9, and prosecutors used the evidence to convict the man of two counts related to drug possession.

Like all narcotic-trained K-9s, the dog could detect marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and methamphetamine, and could not communicate which of those substances it smelled. Because it was not known whether the dog alerted the officers to the presence of the legal cannabis, the court ruled the evidence should not have been admitted in the original trial and the man’s conviction was overturned. The ruling also said people in Colorado have a “legitimate expectation of privacy” when they possess something legal like marijuana.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that a drug dog’s smell test can contribute to a probable cause determination if the suspects are doing something else to raise suspicion.

The continued developments in the court system have Buffett concerned about the potential for roadblocks facing Illinois law enforcement.

Buffett stressed that he opposes legalization of marijuana or any kind of drug, saying it “scares the hell” out of him to think of someone driving a vehicle after using marijuana. Unlike alcohol, marijuana manifests with delayed symptoms, so people are more likely to get behind the wheel without realizing they have been affected, he said.

“People don’t think what the consequences are of legalizing drugs that impair,” he said.

Buffett, who published a book last month about the growing opioid epidemic and how it relates to security of the U.S.-Mexico border, said his private foundation has studied the use of marijuana in Colorado. Its early reports show more fatal accidents, emergency medical services and youth usage, he said, and cartels and organized crime are taking over cannabis operations and selling it on the black market.

From his own conversations with regulators in Colorado, Linn expressed skepticism about the negative consequences Buffett reported.

“If you talk to those regulators, they have lines you can call to address cartels and illegal going-ons in the industry,” he said. “And I think Colorado has done a good job keeping those nefarious types away from the legal cannabis industry.”

Other law enforcement groups, including the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, have also come out against legalization efforts.

A proposal, sponsored by state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, would allow adults older than 21 to possess up to 28 grams of marijuana and maintain the current regulatory structure in the medical marijuana program. Portions of revenue generated from legalization would go toward a public education campaign aimed at children and teenagers to inform them of the risks marijuana can pose to them.

But the general consensus in Springfield is the plan will be tabled until next year, pending the upcoming gubernatorial race.

Future in Illinois

This November could go a long way toward determining which direction Illinois takes next year in regard to legalization.

The gubernatorial battle between Democrat JB Pritzker and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner offers a distinct choice for voters.

Rauner, who is seeking his second term, has been adamantly opposed to recreational pot use. Though he signed the 2016 bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, Rauner has called legalization “a mistake” as recently as last month.

Pritzker, meanwhile, has called for legalization, saying it would bring much-needed revenue for the state and reform the criminal justice system by keeping minor offenders out of prison.

“We must review and commute the sentences of people incarcerated for marijuana offenses in Illinois,” he told The Associated Press last month. “It’s time to bring the era of mass incarcerations for minor drug offenses to an end.”

Illinois was one of the top 12 states with the most arrests for marijuana possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s most recent analysis in 2010. While African-Americans made up 15 percent of the population at the time, they accounted for 58 percent of marijuana-related arrests.

Voters could also have the chance to weigh in on the issue this fall. The Illinois Senate approved a bill in March that would have the Illinois State Board of Elections place a question about legalization on every ballot in the Nov. 6 General Election. The measure is nonbinding, essentially making it a public opinion poll rather than an enforceable policy, but legalization supporters said it could help prove to lawmakers that public support for marijuana is there.

The bill still needs to pass the House and be signed by Rauner, who called it a misguided effort.

Cook County voters were asked a similar nonbinding question during the March 20 primary election, with 68 percent of respondents in favor of allowing recreational pot for adults over 21.

A poll conducted in early March by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale found two-thirds of Illinois residents support legalization.

The federal government could throw more uncertainty into Illinois’ plans. The U.S. Justice Department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime marijuana opponent, announced in January it would revoke guidance from the Obama administration that had discouraged prosecutors from enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized the drug.

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