It took Springfield police decades to get their own drug detection dog. And when Danner finally arrived last September, she could sniff out heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, but not marijuana.
The 2-year-old black Labrador is exactly what they wanted.
“I think we saw the writing on the wall after marijuana became legal in Washington and Colorado,” said Springfield Sgt. Rich Charboneau, who helped train the drug dog and the department’s other four patrol dogs. “We thought it could possibly happen here, so we decided we probably should not even train for it.”
Springfield is among at least a half-dozen Oregon police agencies that have decided to phase out or reassign their pot-detecting dogs as state voters legalized recreational use of the drug last November.
When Measure 91 takes effect in July, people 21 and older can legally possess up to 8 ounces of marijuana and pot-infused products in a home. A person can carry up to one ounce legally in public.
So the drug dogs won’t necessarily be sniffing out a crime anymore and risk the chance of an illegal search. The dogs give the same signal no matter which drug they discover and can’t determine the amount of drugs in a stash.
Other cops are hanging on to their marijuana-finding dogs to use in more targeted investigations. It’s still illegal for people to possess more than a half-pound of marijuana, and any amount of marijuana remains forbidden in certain places, including jails and schools.
“This is a conversation every agency with a drug detection dog is having or has had for several months now and how it’s being addressed varies from agency to agency,” said Springfield Officer Daren Kendrick. “But police work is like the ocean, we have to go with the flow and always be able to adapt to changing technologies and laws to help the community.”
Kendrick is president of the Oregon Police Canine Association, which includes 63 Oregon law enforcement agencies and about 10 others from out of state. He and others estimate that Oregon has at least 150 police dogs, with about a third of them trained to find just drugs.
The others are a mix of patrol dogs that can track people or bombs or that are cross-trained to detect drugs and people.
In addition to Springfield, police departments in Beaverton and Hillsboro, Oregon State Police and sheriff’s offices in Clackamas and Washington counties have joined the ranks of agencies accepting new dogs that detect only heroin, cocaine and meth – not pot.
In Roseburg, police announced Jan. 16 that they plan to retire their drug dog, Dora, sometime before July 1 and give her to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
“K9 Dora has been trained to detect marijuana, along with several other illegal narcotics, but unfortunately she cannot be ‘untrained’ to detect marijuana and therefore can no longer be used as a patrol K9 after the measure takes effect,” the department said in a statement.
Dora will be used at the Douglas County Jail to find marijuana and other contraband, said sheriff’s spokesman Dwes Hutson.
Roseburg police hope to get a replacement dog in the summer that doesn’t search for marijuana, Hutson said.
The Portland Police Bureau and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office are among the agencies that don’t have any immediate plans to make changes. They still need the dogs to help bust large-scale marijuana trafficking, said Portland Sgt. Pete Simpson.
“We are waiting on some guidelines from the state and (district attorney’s) office on how the new law will affect search and seizure,” Simpson said. “But until we get those answers, we aren’t going to buy new dogs that are not trained for marijuana.”
Salem police also are taking a wait-and-see approach with their one drug-detection dog, said Lt. Dave Okada.
“Officers have been told that until July to ‘operate business as usual’ from the DA’s office,” he said.
The Oregon Department of Justice has had discussions with Oregon State Police and other state agencies about how to address the marijuana law, but hasn’t issued any guidance on police dogs, said spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson. She doesn’t know when or if that will happen, she said.
Washington and Colorado police agencies have had some time to figure out what to do since recreational pot use was legalized in 2012. And it’s a mixed approach like Oregon.
Vancouver police and the Washington State Patrol, for example, no longer train dogs to recognize marijuana. But the Tacoma Police Department still uses its narcotics dog that detects pot, said Officer Loretta Cool.
“If the marijuana is not in plain view, officers typically use other factors other than the dog’s nose to determine if they have enough probable cause to get a search warrant,” she said. “That includes the officers themselves smelling marijuana.”
It’s not feasible to try to retrain dogs to ignore pot, said Clackamas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Don Boone, one of the agency’s dog handlers. Police dogs usually start training with marijuana first, then other drugs, partly because the strong odor makes it easier to imprint, Boone said.
For every successful find, dogs get a reward, such as a toy, to reinforce training, Boone said. To change that behavior, the handler would have to deliver negative reinforcement, such as a sharp tug on the leash, to indicate that the dog should move on to something else. It could interfere with searches for other drugs, he said.
“More trouble than it’s worth,” Boone said.
It typically costs up to $ 10,000 just to buy a drug dog, such as a German Shepherd, said Kendrick, the Springfield officer. Thousands more are spent to train the dog to find the drugs, and there is also four to eight weeks of training with a human partner and then routine training afterward to keep the dog’s skills sharp, he said.
Boone estimates that the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office has spent about $ 50,000 to date on his 7-year-old Dutch Shepherd partner, Spencer. The dog is one of two there that can find people and drugs, but not marijuana.
The sheriff’s office has been phasing out marijuana-searching dogs through attrition for the last two years – and has one left, Boone said. It will be used during school and warrant searches.
“At that point the dog is only a searching tool and not being used to develop probable cause,” Boone said. “He’s just being used to find the drugs.”
Kendrick said he’s glad when police wait to retire the marijuana dogs rather than forcing them out. The dogs enjoy the job as much as their handlers do, he said.
“Drug-detection dogs will probably never go away,” Kendrick said. “But who knows, maybe in five years, you may be able to count on one hand the amount that can detect marijuana.”
— Everton Bailey Jr.