Legal pot means big changes for Washington’s drug-sniffing dogs

130319_Police_Dog_660The passage of I-502 made things difficult enough for the humans tasked with creating and enforcing the laws for legal marijuana. Now, try explaining the difference between “personal use” and “intent to sell” or the gray area between state and federal law to a dog.

That’s why many law-enforcement agencies around the state, including the Seattle Police Department and Washington State Patrol, will no longer be training their drug-sniffing dogs to alert for marijuana.

“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, author of I-502 and drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys sent out a memo advising the state’s law-enforcement agencies that narcotics dogs are no longer required to be trained to alert for marijuana in December. And, marijuana was removed from the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission’s Canine Performance Standards test in January.

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said the Seattle Police Department is already taking steps to desensitize its dogs to marijuana through rewards and constant training “Got to keep those sniffers in shape,” Whitcomb said.

Thanks to some fortuitous timing, the Bellevue Police Department is on the leading edge of removing marijuana from narcotics dogs’ vocabularies.

In January, the department decided to train its general tracking dog to also detect drugs. During the dog’s two months of training, the department specifically taught it not to alert for marijuana, Bellevue Police Lt. Dan Mathieu said.

“The ideal is the situation we’re in right now,” he said. However, while agencies still have dogs trained to alert for marijuana on patrol, officers will no longer be able to rely solely on dog’s alert when determining probable cause for a search warrant, according to the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys memo.

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