Side Effects: As the legalization of cannabis rolls out across the US, drug-sniffing police dogs are moving into early retirement

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To travel agents, typists, & telephone operators, we can add Thunder, a cannabis-sniffing canine, to the growing list of people – and dogs – becoming redundant in our rapidly changing world, in this case due to the runaway legalization of cannabis.

Which has an interesting nuance. It’s not just that alerting to a legal substance has no law enforcement value, it’s that these dogs are trained to react to all substances, legal & illegal, in the same way – thus negating an alert as legal grounds for a search.

That’s what the Colorado Supreme Court said when it upheld a trial court’s dismissal of a methamphetamine possession case. Kilo (of course), a Sherriff’s Office K-9 dog trained on multiple drugs, alerted on a man’s truck during a traffic stop. Which, the state argued, gave the police grounds to search the vehicle that resulted in the discovery of some meth residue.

Held: The alert did not provide grounds to search because, as the police conceded, Kilo couldn’t tell the difference between a legal substance, cannabis, and meth.

It’s not a case of bad dog, it’s a case of bad training: given that police dogs are trained to alert to all substances in the same way, alerting to cannabis is now about as useful as alerting to coffee.

The phenomenon is countrywide. “The trend is everywhere,” said Don Slavik, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association, adding that it’s also a case of old dogs & new tricks: “Once you train a behavior in a dog, that never goes away.”

So what will happen to the likes of Thunder? “You work with them day in and day out, and they become part of you, and to just take it away is kind of tough,” said Virginia K-9 officer Darrell Hodges. And so, he says, many of the dogs are being adopted by their handlers, just like the one recently retired from his office:

The dog is actually living a wonderful life. He has his own bedroom in a house and is getting spoiled rotten.

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