Police officers in Washington state are retraining their drug-sniffing dogs — not to sniff out the hot new synthetic drug, but to no longer react when they smell marijuana. This will allow officers to shift their focus to actual illegal activity across the state.
Since the state voted to legalize marijuana in November, law enforcement have been reforming their marijuana-related measures. Because it is legal for an individual to possess up to one ounce of the drug and transfer it to another person without payment, police dogs that smell marijuana on someone could now be reacting to something that is perfectly legal.
"Moving forward, it makes most sense not to train dogs to alert to marijuana as that would likely lead to unwarranted investigatory detentions of people who are not breaking any law," said Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union and author of the successful marijuana initiative.
This move also comes as a result of President Obama's remark that the federal government has "bigger fish to fry" than prosecuting legal marijuana users in Washington and Colorado, the other state that voted to legalize recreational use in November.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee added after his meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that instead of punishing legal users of the drug, the federal government's primary concern was to ensure that it stayed within Washington's borders.
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb of the Seattle Police Department expressed that retraining their dogs would not be an arduous task.
"Got to keep those sniffers in shape," he said.
The Bellevue Police Department got an unprecedented head start in the task when in January it trained its general-purpose dog to detect drugs, and in the two months of training, it was able to teach the dog to specifically not alert for marijuana.
Washington State Patrol spokesperson Bob Caulkins said that in the past, an alert from a narcotics dog was enough to warrant a search; in fact, an officer without a dog could search a vehicle if they smelled marijuana.
Now, he said, officers also have to be "re-trained" to detect other potential warning signs of marijuana-related illegal activity, such as leaving a known drug house or white powder on a driver's mustache.
However, a dog's alert may still warrant a search if the driver appears to be under 21. The possession of marijuana is only legal for people 21 and over.
But Caulkins still wanted to assure legal possessors that the department's process of desensitizing its dogs should give them some additional comfort: They shouldn't fear a search and seizure simply because a police officer is walking near them with a dog.
While some Washington police departments are refusing to follow suit and retrain their dogs — the Tacoma Police Department cited a memo from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys that lets individual agencies search for whatever illegal substances they desire — it is now unlawful for officers to rely on the dog's reaction alone to justify a search.
As Washington had a higher marijuana possession arrest rate than California prior to its legalization, this move should serve as a good example to the country as to the relative ineffectiveness of arresting people for marijuana possession. By "untraining" narcotics dogs in this manner, police departments can truly focus on actual illegal activity.