Local and national experts are holding their noses over a central Illinois cop’s claim that some drug-sniffing police dogs would have to be euthanized if the state legalizes recreational pot use.
Decatur police Detective Chad Larner’s comment to a local newspaper that the dogs would need to be put down because they can’t be retrained had even his police chief boss scratching his head and apologizing. Larner, in an email exchange with the Tribune, declined to talk and referred questions to the chief.
“It was a bad choice of words, and it’s a statement (Larner) wishes he didn’t make,” Decatur Chief of Police James Getz Jr. told the Tribune on Wednesday. “There are so many uses for these dogs. They are multipurpose dogs. … We anticipate those dogs are going to work with us for a long, long time.”
In the wake of Larner’s comments to The Pantagraph in Bloomington, experts on drug-sniffing police dogs have dismissed the assertion that dogs would have to be euthanized if recreational marijuana is legalized in Illinois. Even if some dogs cannot be retrained, they still can help officers in many tasks, including searching for evidence and stopping fleeing suspects.
What’s more, at most departments — including Decatur’s — canines are selected for their sociability and live as family pets with their handlers after their service, according to Getz and other experts.
To be sure, the role of canines — in particular, how much they actually aid in police work — has sometimes been controversial. In 2011 the Tribune reported that suburban police officers located drugs or paraphernalia in vehicles only about 44 percent of the time after a dog alerted that it was there.
How the role of drug-sniffing police dogs might change is just one of the latest flashpoints in the ongoing debate about whether small amounts of recreational marijuana should be legalized in Illinois. The majority of Cook County voters voted in favor of legalizing pot in a nonbinidng referendum in March. Supporters say a regulated marijuana market could produce much-needed revenue for the state while opponents worry it could have a detrimental impact on health.
But voters need not be concerned that police dogs will be killed if the measure comes up for a vote and passes, experts say.
In Cook County, the sheriff’s 14 canines won’t be out of work.
“I don’t believe legalizing marijuana would impact their tremendous utility to our office and the public we serve,” Cara Smith, a spokeswoman, said in an email.
The sheriff’s dogs are dually trained to help with narcotics and other tasks, such as tracking suspects, searching for evidence and apprehending people trying to flee or resist deputies, Smith said.
Included among the K-9s are two bloodhounds that help with searches for missing people and three explosives detection dogs that are not cross-trained in narcotics, Smith said.
At the Chicago Police Department, officers work with about 60 K-9s, which are initially trained at a facility on the Northwest Side, said Officer Patrick McGinnis, a department spokesman.
“Future CPD K-9 training and policy regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana will ultimately depend on the enacted legislation,” McGinnis said in an email.
Departments, however, should expect to make some changes to their canine programs if people are allowed to carry and consume small amounts of pot.
The biggest issue crops up when dogs identify an illicit drug or item during a search that also turns up legal marijuana, experts said. In the nine states and Washington, D.C., where marijuana is legal, courts and local prosecutors are often consulted about whether such a search is legally justified, said Rick Ashabranner, president of the North American Police Work Dog Association.
“It’s not an easy answer. It’s going to be brought up more and more often,” Ashabranner said.
It is difficult and costly, but not impossible, to retrain dogs on marijuana, according to Ashabranner and Brian Dowdy, who runs one of the state’s approved academies for narcotics detection canines.
That can be accomplished by withholding rewards and teaching dogs that marijuana will not yield a positive result, Dowdy said. Currently, dogs in Illinois are trained to identify four scents — marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.
A dog’s career in law enforcement usually spans about six to eight years, Dowdy said, so some departments may opt to retire canines early and start from scratch rather than trying to retrain a dog close to finishing its service.
When dogs hang up their badges, they generally get to enjoy a life of leisure as a family pet at their handler’s house, Dowdy said.
“There’s no reason for any dogs to be euthanized because marijuana is legalized,” Dowdy said. “That’s extreme, and it’s almost like trying to coerce the people who are going to be voting on the law.”