The problem is that certain dogs used by police were trained to alert to several drugs. That includes marijuana, which, depending on the amount, could now be legal. Their human handlers cannot tell which drug the dogs have noticed.
Dustin Sternbeck, a D.C. police spokesman, said Friday that the department agreed with the agency’s assessments and will no longer deploy those dogs during traffic stops and other routine patrols. He also said the police department is phasing out canines trained to smell marijuana and other drugs.
The D.C. police department is among the latest law enforcement agencies around the country forced to change how its canine members perform their jobs as more states legalize marijuana in one form or another. Police in Virginia, Colorado, California, Michigan and Massachusetts have retired or repurposed drug-sniffing canines.
Virginia State Police will retire 13 drug-sniffing dogs after the state’s legalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana, which took effect July 1, Shelby Crouch, a department spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Crouch said the dogs have to be retired because they have been trained to signal handlers when they detect marijuana and other drugs.
“We cannot train the canine to forget an odor once it has been trained to recognize it and we do not want to subject anyone to an unnecessary search if they are not doing anything illegal,” Crouch wrote.
The retired dogs are being adopted by their handlers, and new canines are being trained to replace them, Crouch wrote. It costs roughly $15,000 to train each dog.
In 2019, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned a conviction of a man after a canine named Kilo alerted to drugs in a vehicle and police found residue of methamphetamine, which is illegal. Kilo was also trained to detect marijuana, and the justices said police did not know which drug Kilo had smelled.
Because the officers could not rule out that the dog had merely alerted to a legal amount of marijuana, the justices said they had no legal basis to search the vehicle.
“Even a hint of marijuana can trigger the same response from Kilo as any quantity of methamphetamine,” the court ruled. “The dog’s sniff arguably intrudes on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy in lawful activity.”
The D.C. Office of Police Complaints said in a report issued July 8 that it has received inquiries from people in D.C. who were searched after a drug-sniffing dog alerted for narcotics — and only marijuana was found.
Even if those searches yielded more than the two ounces of marijuana a person is allowed to possess in the District, the agency said that the search itself was improper, because it was based on fragrance rather than substance. The agency said that if a human officer cannot use smell to find marijuana, then police dogs should not be “deployed as a work around to satisfy reasonable suspicion either.”
Michael Tobin, executive director of the complaints office, said he believes D.C. police simply forgot to update the rules regarding canines when marijuana was decriminalized. He warned that, without changes, the department could successfully be sued.
D.C. police “cannot afford to continue financing marijuana trained detection canines on their current practices,” the report says, noting that failure to update regulations leaves the city “susceptible to additional legal and policy liability.”
Most D.C. police dogs are part of what is called the Canine Patrol Unit and can cost up to $12,000 to buy and another $15,000 to train. The agency has 21 canine teams, according to the department’s website. They are used to track and catch suspected criminals and missing people, locate firearms and explosives, and alert to five different drugs: marijuana, methamphetamines, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin.
Sternbeck said few of the department’s dogs were used for street-level drug enforcement, and most are trained to detect explosives and firearms, which they do by smelling gunpowder on the weapons. He said one dog that can smell marijuana will be kept for a squad that concentrates on large-scale narcotics investigations but will not be used during traffic stops or routine patrols.
Don Slavik, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association, which runs one of the country’s largest law enforcement training and certification programs for canines, said these new rules will probably mean early retirement for many drug-smelling dogs.
He said some dogs can be repurposed or are already trained to also search for people or objects.
Slavik said the nonprofit is getting fewer requests from police agencies for dogs whose portfolios include marijuana. He said training dogs to give different alerts to signal different types of drugs might be possible, “but I would say it’s impractical.”