Dogs have been trained to aid in drug detection for years. Some states are currently struggling with the use of their specifically trained narcotics dogs, now that marijuana and hemp are becoming legal.
Florida just passed a new hemp law in July, making possession of hemp legal, causing issues for the state's narcotics dogs who cannot distinguish between hemp and cannabis sativa.
Legal hemp can only contain up to .3% THC while cannabis can contain over 20% THC. Most states don't have the necessary equipment to test THC levels in cannabis to determine cannabis sativa from hemp.
"The equipment needed to conduct this test costs $250,000," Thomas Quinlan, Columbus Police Chief explained. "Doesn't make sense for a $10 citation."
Officers used to be able to have probable cause just from the smell of marijuana but hemp and marijuana are not easily distinguishable by scent alone.
Most dogs are taught to bark or sit when they smell drugs, but they aren't taught to determine what drug they smelled and alert in a different way.
"The dog doesn't put up one finger and say, 'cocaine,' two fingers and say, 'heroin,' and three fingers and say, 'marijuana,' explained Bob Gaultieri, Florida Sheriff's Association President. “We had a very, very hard bright line up until this point that if a cop walks up to a car and you smell marijuana, well no matter what it was, any amount of THC is illegal, so if you smelled it, that gave you probable cause. ... You had a hard bright line, period end of story. Now that bright line isn’t bright any more. Now that bright line is something less than that. Now if you walk up to a car and you smell marijuana, you have to conduct an investigation, and that along with other things may give you probable cause.”
Colorado Supreme court decision in the People v. McKnight states 'law enforcement officers must have probable cause to believe that an item or area contains a drug in violation of state law before deploying a drug-detection dog that alerts to marijuana for an exploratory sniff.' Meaning the dogs cannot be the first nor the only probable cause for searching a vehicle.
This is because the dog alerting could be alerting to a legal amount of marijuana, which in Colorado is up to one ounce for adults over the age of 21 and can differ for medical marijuana patients. This leaves a grey area for people having more than the legal amount, since officers can't just let the dog determine if a search is necessary.
Dogs in Colorado are still useful when all the people in the vehicle are under the age of 21, if the officers can establish other probable cause and at schools if requested by the administration.
Marijuana still remains federally illegal, meaning it cannot cross state lines. Narcotics dogs were a helping hand in finding people illegally transporting it. With the new marijuana legalization, officers can no longer go solely off of what the dog smells, meaning people could be illegally transporting marijuana but without probable cause they can't do anything.
"The dogs are done," said Florida State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister. "If they're pot-trained, I don't know how we can ever re-certify them. Unless they're trained in the future in a different way, in my area, every dog is going to be retired."
Some police stations have changed what their dogs are trained to sniff out. It's almost impossible to teach current drug dogs to stop alerting to marijuana as it's drilled into their brains. However, it is easier to train a dog to alert to a new scent so some are taking marijuana off the list, but can always add it if necessary.
Loveland police in Colorado retired their last marijuana detecting dog in 2015 and added their first non-marijuana drug sniffing dog in 2012. The Larimer County Sheriffs office in CO retired their last patrol dog trained for marijuana this past February. The still have 2 drug dogs trained for marijuana for use in the local jail.
Narcotics dogs still have their place helping catch people with illegal drugs both in prisons and on the street. It's just time to tweak their training since marijuana laws have been changing so quickly and drastically in the recent years.
Sources: The Palm Beach Post, The Columbus Dispatch, Fort Collins Coloradoan
Dog sniffing image source: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle
Supreme court image source: https://www.robinsonandhenry.com/colorado/criminal-defense/drug-sniffing-dog-probable-cause/