The economic benefits of marijuana have been made clear in the states where it has been legalized: hundreds of thousands of jobs have been added nationwide, and cannabis is the “fastest-growing labor market in the U.S.” according to Nick Colas at DataTrek Research.
Despite this economic boon, there is one group in this country that that has emerged as a clear loser in the age of legal weed: the police and their K-9 units. No violin is too small to communicate the magnitude of this loss. The lamentations of the police whose dogs somehow only bite minorities now echo across the country.
It costs about 6,000 dollars to buy a dog that has been bred sniff out drugs, and thousands more to train it to fulfill its civic duty. Many facilities with the capability to train a precocious puppy into an officer of the law have already begun to change their procedures for the majority of police dogs. These facilities teach K-9’s to sniff out drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, heroin, and of course, marijuana. Once a dog goes through the training process, trainers find it difficult to stop it from alerting police to the presence of weed. It is even more difficult to inform the dogs of changes to state and federal law through ear scratches and treats. This causes an issue for police officers and departments which may feel obligated to adhere to the law.
Now that marijuana is legal, a dog that barks for weed could be a liability. Any good defense lawyer in a case where a drug-sniffing dog is involved will ask the question: “Was the K-9 trained to sniff out marijuana?” If the answer is yes, the defense will argue that the police search was unlawful.
One conviction has already been overturned on these grounds, according to the New York Times. In Colorado, a dog named Kilo that had been trained to find multiple drugs, including marijuana, flagged a man’s truck for containing contraband. When officers searched it, they found a pipe with what appeared to be methamphetamine residue. Although no marijuana was found in the truck, the three-judge panel said Kilo’s signal was no longer a reliable indicator of illegal activity. The court overturned the conviction.
This creates a hurdle for departments with K-9 units, but only once the case reaches court. The executive director of the United States Police Canine Association has said that many police departments are willing to “take their chances in court,” despite the ruling in Colorado. Their chances are generally pretty good, considering that, more than 90 percent of defendants in the United States plead guilty rather than go to trial, so the police almost never need to defend their claims in court. Kilo’s retirement case was an aberration, rather than the rule: most K-9’s won’t undergo that kind of scrutiny. Either way, police departments around the country are attempting to adapt to the new normal.
In Illinois, approximately 275 narcotic K-9’s will be retired or rehomed in the event of Marijuana legalization. A big loss for Sheriff Howard Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, who paid 2.2 million in 2016 for K-9 units across Illinois.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, has ordered police departments to stop training K-9 drug sniffing dogs to recognize the scent of cannabis. Weed is still illegal in New Jersey, but law enforcement views the change as inevitable. Most of the dogs will not retire—many will deploy to locations where marijuana still isn’t allowed, like jails or schools. Thank police ingenuity for finding a way to simultaneously terrify children and save money.