Legalization of marijuana forcing some police K9s in Virginia to retire

Local law enforcement agencies in the Commonwealth are taking a hit due to the legalization of marijuana, especially in their K9 departments.  

Law enforcement agencies tell FOX 5 they have anticipated changes with the decriminalization of marijuana back in 2020.

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For example, Second Lt. Ari Morin has a dual purpose K9 – trained in patrol and narcotics detention – named Tango.  

"My partner is not currently trained on marijuana so the odor means absolutely nothing," said Morin. "If he runs across a car and alerts on it, I know he is not alerting on marijuana, there is something else in the car that is not legal to possess."

Right now, the Fairfax County Police Department has 10 pot-sniffing narcotic dogs. When they retire, they will be replaced with K9s - like Tango - not exposed to marijuana.

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"With the decriminalization and the law the way it was written; the odor of marijuana was no longer probable cause to search a vehicle based upon a drug sniff by a trained narcotics dog," said Morin. "Our canines also help track and apprehend criminal suspects, clear buildings that have been burglarized, and search for discarded items."

For now, the agency is still finding use for its 10 K9s that are trained to detect marijuana. They will strictly focus on patrol functions and won't be called to do drug sniffs on the street.

"What’s just going to happen is the 5 dogs that are not trained on marijuana are going to be pulling a lot of work for Fairfax county as well as surrounding jurisdictions," said Morin.

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You may be wondering, is it possible to untrain a K9 from the smell of weed.

"Although it’s possible to train an animal or train one of the narcotic dogs off an odor, it’s something that would always carry with their name in court and it’s not worth the hassle to do so because it would take a long time to untrain an odor. Dogs are very, they learn by association. Once that odor is associated with some reward or food it’s going to be very difficult for them to unlearn it. It’s easier for them to retire the single purpose K9s," said Morin.

He adds it takes a lot of time and effort to train these dogs. The cost of one K9 that is completely certified is between $7,000 to $10,000.

Virginia State Police will retire 13 and they are looking for their replacements now. Fox 5 checked in with other police departments in Northern Virginia to find out the impact this has one them. Here are their responses to the changes:  

Alexandria Police Department:

"APD will do the same things we do for all new laws.  We will review our policies, make the needed changes to conform with the new law and train our officers accordingly.  That training is usually provided with assistance from the Commonwealth Attorney for the City," said a spokesperson via e-mail. "We have 8 K-9/Handler teams with 1 of the 8 being certified in narcotics detection.  3 are in the process of obtaining their certification.  Anticipating the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, we did not imprint our dogs on the odor of marijuana.  That means they will not alert to the odor of marijuana because they have not been trained on it.  Our dogs are trained on powder cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, PCP, and MDMA."

The department continued to say, "If we were to have trained the dogs on marijuana, we would have done everything possible to try and "proof" them off of the odor.  This is done by reversing the training process and not rewarding the dog when they locate the odor.  Eventually the dog will recognize that they don’t get rewarded for detecting marijuana and won’t alert to it.  They would have to be re-certified as well.  If we were unable to proof the dog off marijuana, we would most likely decertify the dog in narcotics detection and maintain them as a patrol dog.   Of course, all of this depends on the age of the dog, the skill of the handler, the budget of the unit, etc."

Arlington County Police Department:

"There are no plans to retire current K9’s related to legislative changes. As we move forward, new dual-purpose narcotic/patrol K9s will not be trained in marijuana imprinting," said an Arlington County Police Department spokesperson in an e-mail.

Prince William County Police:

"We have 14 K-9s here, most of which are trained in patrol operations. Drug detection is an ancillary training only a few of our dogs have and they can detect more than just marijuana. Moving forward, our training will be amended to not include marijuana imprinting, but we’re not retiring dogs at this point due to the change," said a Prince William County Police Department spokesperson in an e-mail.

Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office:

"We have 8 K-9 Units (assigned to Patrol and Corrections). Many of our K-9s are dual purpose and are utilized on Patrol in our Field Operations Division. One of the K-9s is assigned to the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center and will continue to be used for detection of narcotics, to include marijuana, as this is considered contraband in a corrections setting.  The other K-9s will not be utilized for marijuana detection unless used within the framework allowed by Virginia code.  Future training of our K-9s will not include marijuana detection," said a Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson in an e-mail.

The legalization of marijuana is set for July 1, 2021.

Governor Ralph Northam says the legalization of marijuana is to address racial disparities in the justice system. With the overall goal being to build a fairer and inclusive state.