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Legal Marijuana changes drug dog duties

Departments shift marijuana-sniffers to other work
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Posted at 1:45 PM, Jun 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-19 01:31:51-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Legalized marijuana has led to different duties for drug sniffing dogs. Law enforcement officers have to be careful that a dog sniffing out marijuana doesn’t ruin a bigger drug bust.

Tucson Police K9 Blitz puts a lot of energy into finding drugs. He doesn’t really know they’re drugs but he does know he gets a reward when he signals that he found certain scents.

Marijuana is one of those scents but except for a few special cases Tucson Police do not use Blitz to find drugs anymore. He’s trained for other duties too so he stays busy with those.

Blitz’s job has changed because it’s become legal in Arizona for adults to have less than an ounce of marijuana. TPD K9 Sergeant Paul Sheldon says even the smartest drug dogs have no way to tell their handler if they found a drug that’s illegal or one that just became legal.

“I can't teach a dog to alert one way on marijuana and learn a different way on cocaine, so all of our dogs are taught to sit when they find the odor of narcotics. So whatever that cocktail of narcotics is that we've taught them, that alert is what they're going to alert to. We're not gonna be able to say that they alerted solely to methamphetamine versus marijuana.”

Here’s why that has departments changing how they use their dogs.

We usually try to avoid weighing things down with a lot of complicated legal terms but in this case, we have to tell you about a concept called probable cause. If an officer is going to search a car for instance, he has to satisfy probable cause, that means he has to prove there was good reason to do that search, and a dog alerting on that car is a good reason. But if there's a question of whether that dog alerted because of a trace of marijuana or a trunk-load of meth, a defense attorney has a chance of throwing that out in court.

Judges can rule if part of a search is invalid, all of the search is invalid so the chance the dog alerted on legal marijuana could throw out a search even if the search also found an illegal load of cocaine or meth.

So the dog must only alert on something clearly illegal, and marijuana no longer qualifies.

Several years ago, both departments anticipated the chance of legalized marijuana and began using new dogs trained to recognize only meth, cocaine and heroin.

Rogan is one of those new dogs. His partner, Pima Sheriff's K9 Sergeant Erick Maldonado says when a dog will only alert for clearly illegal drugs, any search that dog triggered is more likely to stand up in court.

“As an agency, we don't want to jeopardize our quality arrest and seizures. That can be monetary seizures, property seizures, seizures that can be liquidated, so we can potentially set a bad standard by using dogs that have marijuana imprinted on them, and then lose cases, prosecutions, and seizures. along with that.”

Because both departments cross train their dogs to find drugs and people, marijuana-trained dogs pulled from drug work can still work for the public. But as they retire, the new dogs that replace them will not have a nose for marijuana.