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Legalization hasn’t been a good thing for everyone. In Canada and American states where reform has become a reality, changes to the rules around recreational adult use of cannabis have meant early retirement for a unique part of the police force: sniffer dogs trained to detect weed.

Traffic and interdiction dogs are being phased out, leading to the sale of some and the end of the career road for others. While not every sniffer dog will lose its job – and most of the 140 animals in Canada’s federal police force will continue to be trained to detect cannabis for targets in the black market – canines used for roadside stops and seizures are now out of work.1

“These dogs often work on roads and when they smell drugs we have to search the vehicle,” RCMP senior police dog training sergeant, Gary Creed, told reporters. “After legalization, an arrest made in this way can be called into question, so we have to change the dogs.”

Changes to police-dog personnel were prompted by a court ruling in Colorado, where a veteran drug-detection canine flagged contraband in a man’s truck, a pipe that appeared to have methamphetamine residue in it. Because the dog, Kilo, was trained to find many drugs including cannabis, a three-judge panel ruled that Kilo couldn’t serve as a reliable source of illegal activity.2

A definite loss to many police departments, some of these canines have impressive track records. Forced into retirement after eight years with the force in Rifle, Colorado, a yellow Labrador named Tulo was responsible for 170 arrests in that town, population 9,000. The RCMP in St. John’s, N.L., recently threw a retirement party for Luke, a dog who sniffed out $5 million in drugs in his time with the department.3

While Canadian dogs will continue to be trained to detect cannabis, many American states where the herb remains illegal for recreational purposes have started to shift their practices. The owner of Top Dog Police K-9 Training and Consulting, Ron Cloward, told reporters that he recently trained a dog for a department in Texas that asked him to omit cannabis from the list of traceable scents. 

Because so many states, and countries like Canada and Uruguay, have moved to legalize cannabis at all levels, there is the looming question of how to best utilize older canines that are trained to pick-up the smell of cannabis. As the black market is becomes fully replaced by legal distribution channels, the result will be even less jobs for cannabis-sniffing dogs.  

The cost of the changeover has been steep. It’s reported to be around $6,000 to purchase an appropriate dog, and thousands more are required to train it. Twenty to 50 days are needed for a canine to complete narcotics training, so time is also of the essence as, in Canada, every one of the 14 traffic dogs being sold or forced into early retirement will have to be replaced. For those that are prematurely losing their jobs, one age-old idiom rings especially true: it’s a dog’s life.

1. “The RCMP is selling weed-sniffing dogs.” https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/nek75q/the-rcmp-is-selling-weed-sniffing-dogs
2. “Marijuana legalization threaten dogs’ collars.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/24/business/marijuana-legalization-police-dogs.html
3. “Looming cannabis legalization forces 14 RCMP sniffer dogs into early retirement.” https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-looming-cannabis-legalization-forces-14-rcmp-sniffer-dogs-into-early/

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