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Can An Old Drug Dog Learn New Tricks—Like How Not to Smell Marijuana in States Where It’s Legal?

It seems that once they’ve inhaled, it’s impossible for them to ever forget the scent

As it becomes more and more likely that weed will become legal throughout the U.S., important new questions are emerging about how to handle all of this newfound 420-friendliness. Such as:

But there’s also some less important questions worth investigating. Such as *hits bong*:

  • What’s gonna happen to all of the drug dogs trained to sniff out weed in states where weed is legal?

Traditionally, drug dogs are trained to alert for five different substances — 1) marijuana; 2) methamphetamine; 3) PCP; 4) cocaine; and 5) heroin. The problem is: “Over the course of one year, a drug dog is rewarded for responding to the odor of marijuana hundreds, if not thousands of times,” says Barry Cooper, a former DEA agent. “The trained behavior of alerting to marijuana is imprinted so deep in the canine’s psyche, it’s impossible to erase.”

“You can’t retrain dogs when it comes to marijuana,” adds James Woodford, a forensic chemist who created and patented the odor of cocaine that serves as the industry standard when it comes to training dogs to sniff out the substance. (The government wouldn’t allow him to do the same for weed because it’s a naturally occuring odor, whereas cocaine is odorless until its fermented in a human environment, which, of course, is totally gross.) “Say you always use marijuana stored in a Ziploc bag while training a dog, they’ll start alerting to the smell of Ziploc bags. There’s something called extinction training, where you train them not to alert to the bag, but you can’t do that with marijuana. Illegal and legal weed smell the same. As a matter of fact, dogs usually get more training on marijuana than they do other drugs because of its prevalence and the way law enforcement has traditionally approached policing marijuana as a priority.”

The silver lining, though: Police officers can no longer use drug dogs to support their searches when the smell of weed is the only thing constituting probable cause, at least in Colorado, where this became the rule of law last summer, more than two years after weed was legalized in the state. “Again, since legal marijuana gives off the same odor as the illegal stuff, that kills the probable cause aspect of it,” Woodford explains. “Cops have done a lot of lying about the odor of marijuana. In my opinion, cops will write their reports and use drug dogs to support their searches after the fact, so even if they don’t end up finding any marijuana in a state where it’s not legal, the cop will say, ‘I smelled the marijuana, and the dog did too!’ to make sure they’re in the clear when it comes to probable cause. Many cops use their dogs to substantiate their [unconstitutional] searches, which has created a lot of untruthful testimony.”

According to The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (or as its better known, NORML), California will likely be the next state to litigate whether or not the smell of cannabis, post-legalization, constitutes probable cause for a police search.

As for the dogs? Given the opinions of Cooper and Woodford as well as many of their colleagues, maintaining that they can be retrained feels both condescending and dangerous, since the dogs’ false triggers could lead to further escalated policing over something that is now (or will be) legal. (Though, unfortunately, retraining and “desensitization” is what the Ontario Provincial Police in Canada and K-9 units in Washington, D.C., are attempting.) And so, early retirement seems like the only option. “Most of us who smoke marijuana would feel better if these dogs were put out to pasture,” says NORML’s legal counsel Keith Stroup, “and new dogs were [only] trained for explosives or for other purposes.”