Legalization of marijuana presents a potential problem for police departments using drug dogs

LOVELAND, Colo. - Now that up to one ounce of recreational marijuana is legal for adults in Colorado, police departments have a problem -- their drug-sniffing dogs haven’t gotten the message.

Once the pups are trained to find marijuana they will look for it no matter what the law says.

But since Amendment 64 passed, there’s a concern about establishing probable cause for a search.

Dogs trained to detect narcotics aren't trained to provide different signals for different drugs, and they can't tell if they've detected a legal or illegal amount of marijuana.

"So now the issue was, do we have probable cause to believe there's an illegal substance in the car, when one of the things the dog is alerting to might be a legal substance under state law," said District 8 District Attorney Cliff Riedle.

Loveland police spokesman Sgt. Justin Chase further explained why marijuana training was omitted with a hypothetical situation:

Imagine that a dog had indicated the scent of a narcotic inside of a car. Officers use that as probable cause for a search, and inside find murder evidence in addition to a legal amount of the drug.

"Now we have a suppression issue," Chase said, meaning a judge could rule the murder evidence isn't admissible in court because it was obtained during an illegal search.

That’s where Shadow comes in.

Shadow, an 18 month old Dutch Shepard from Holland, is the latest addition to the Loveland Police Department. She’s a first— the first female K9 and the first dog trained to sniff out everything except marijuana.

The timing was perfect. Shadow replaces Officer Robert Croner’s dog, D'Jango, who retired last year.

Her handler said Shadow, who weighs 55 pounds, can still do everything the department’s other K9s are trained to do.

"Building searches, high-risk traffic stops, tracks for suspects, area searches for suspects, searches for evidence," Croner said. "We can use Shadow whenever. What we can't use Shadow for is to search for Marijuana."

7NEWS checked with other metro-area law enforcement agencies and asked, "Do new laws mean new dogs and new training?"

In Denver, Douglas, Arapahoe, Jefferson and Weld Counties the answer was, 'No,' they do not plan to get new dogs or do new training because of Amendment 64. Officials said they have other checks and balances.

Loveland police said Shadow isn't their only answer, either. Their other dogs trained to detect marijuana still work.

"That's not to say that you don't want to have a dog that smells marijuana, because there are going to be circumstances that need that," said Croner.

But the system isn’t perfect.

7NEWS asked what happens if you let someone go because they’re able to produce a legal amount of marijuana?

"Could you be missing other crimes?" 7NEWS anchor Ana Cabrera asked.

"Oh absolutely, absolutely," said Riedle. "It's difficult. Amendment 64 has certainly created many law enforcement issues."

Colorado is not alone. Law enforcement agencies in Washington State are facing similar challenges, since voters in that state legalized recreational marijuana.

Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said his agency will not be training any new dogs to detect marijuana.

7NEWS found police departments in Bremerton and Squamish, Washington already have new dogs that were never trained to recognize marijuana.
 

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