As law enforcement agencies adjust to the recent legalization of the recreational use of marijuana in Washington state, one major trend occurring throughout K-9 police units is teaching drug-sniffing police dogs to ignore the smell of marijuana.
The change in canine officer training follows the November 2012 decision by Washington voters to legalize one ounce of marijuana for adults 21 years and older. While residents can now legally smell like pot without incriminating themselves and even possess up to one ounce, they are still not allowed to grow, sell or share marijuana.
Dusty, a 19-month-old black Labrador, is the first police dog on the Bremerton, Wa. police team to be trained to ignore marijuana. Police dogs are often used to determine whether or not a person is carrying an illegal drug such as marijuana, heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine or cocaine. However, the dogs don’t know how to specifically single out any of these drugs, nor are they able to determine how much there is.
Dusty’s handler Officer Duke Roessel said the police department wanted to train him to only point out illegal substances and shared that Dusty had found five pounds of methamphetamine during a recent search.
Though the change in what drugs the dogs are asked to sniff out mostly happens in training for the newest members of the canine police units, some Washington police departments are entertaining the idea of re-training experienced K-9 units to ignore marijuana as well.
Police departments in at least three cities and the Washington State Patrol have all said they are sending their canine units to pot desensitization training and plan to not train future canine recruits to detect marijuana.
Not everyone thinks the decision to desensitize canine units to marijuana is a great idea. Dog trainer Fred Helfers of the Pacific Northwest Detection Dog Association is one of those people. Helfers, who worked for 20 years as a narcotics investigator, said that training a dog to ignore marijuana may lead to officers missing crimes that are being committed.
“What about trafficking?” he said. “What about people who have more than an ounce?”
Still, Helfers is helping police departments with the new “extinction” training, which he says takes about 30 days plus daily reinforcements.
Barry Cooper is a former narcotics interdiction agent and police drug-dog trainer who decided to leave his job after he saw that prohibition of marijuana was not working.
In a post in the marijuana magazine Cannabis Culture (which is owned by the “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery) Cooper shared information ranging from why police choose to use dogs, how the animals are trained and how to best hide marijuana from police.
Cooper said that a dog has about 200 million scent receptors in their nose and about 15 million of those have infrared capability. “That means a dog can literally smell heat,” he wrote. A human on the other hand has fewer than five million scent receptors, none of which exhibit infrared capability.
To train a police dog, Cooper says a trainer “simply scents a toy with marijuana.”
Balls scented with many different odors are thrown into fields with tall grass and a K-9 cadet is tasked with finding the ball. “The dog will locate the ball using its nose to seek out the odors attached to it. By repeating this process, the dog learns to associate the toy with marijuana.
“The truth is – and many expert K-9 trainers agree – that only one out of ten K-9 teams in America are efficient enough to reliably detect contraband,” Cooper said.
“When a baggie of marijuana is hidden in a drawer and the dog passes the scent cone, the dog thinks his toy is nearby and begins to scratch near the location. To encourage a stronger scratch, the handler begins using verbal commands such as, ‘Get it, get it, get it – get it out of there!’ This training process is very easy, resulting in most dogs learning to alert on the scent of marijuana in one day,” he wrote.
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