Consequence of legalized marijuana? Forced retirement for K9 officers, deputies

    K9 Hutch - a Dutch Shepherd finds the heroin during a training exercise. Dozens of K9s already trained in narcotics to include marijuana could be forced into retirement if marijuana is legalized as called for by Governor Andrew Cuomo. (WHAM photo)<p>{/p}

    (WHAM) - When it comes to agility, two-year-old Hutch is already an A student. He easily scales barriers three times his height.

    The 70-pound Dutch Shepherd has been taught to have a nose for narcotics. He quickly responds to commands from his partner with the Livingston County Sheriff's Office, Sgt. Chad Draper: "Find the dope, go find some dope."

    It doesn't take him long to find a cubby where the heroin has been hidden. He was passively trained, so when he recognizes the scent, he lies down. In his excitement, Hutch scratches at the wooden cubby to make sure Sgt. Draper knows where to look.

    The reward for this deputy dog? A toy - and some vigorous minutes of play time.

    "They think we're playing a game of hide and seek with their toy," said Sgt. Draper. "It imprints that marijuana is my toy, meth is my toy."

    In a second demonstration of his skills, Hutch now searches for meth. Each different narcotic has a different odor, yet the reaction from Hutch is always the same. A Colorado court has ruled that is the problem when pot is suddenly made legal.

    When a K9 detects the odor, drugs are likely present. Yet the deputy dogs can't tell their handlers which drug it is. Once trained to identify and "hit" on pot, they don't stop just because it is now legal. That hurts the case for establishing probable cause.

    "You can't take that out of their system," Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter said. "We don't know if it's marijuana that he's hitting on or cocaine or opioids. I can no longer use that information to apply for a search warrant."

    Legalization cost Colorado 20 percent of its K-9 workforce. Dogs paid for and trained with taxpayer money may be suddenly overqualified. Other states that have legalized marijuana including Michigan and Massachusetts have forced dozens of police dogs into early retirement.

    "We have thousands upon thousands of dollars into one single dog," Livingston County Sheriff Tom Dougherty said. "So take that on a statewide basis, you're talking millions of dollars of taxpayer money and that's a concern."

    K9s most at risk are those trained solely in narcotics detection. New York State Police has the largest K9 force. Sixty of its 99 dogs work narcotics. Most are cross trained in other skills such as tracking.

    Yet Arnie, Blair, Rose and a dozen others are not cross trained- leaving their futures in jeopardy.

    "Totally taking those dogs out of service would be one heck of a hit on all of us in law enforcement and in our abilities to do our job," Sheriff Baxter said. He noted that smaller departments without K9 units rely on NYS police dogs.

    Sheriff Baxter said all seven narcotics dogs in his department are cross-trained and will likely remain on the force - even if they can no longer be used in suspected narcotics investigations. And there are special situations- such as in the jail or in schools where marijuana would remain illegal - even with a change in the law.

    In the early weeks of 2019, many police agencies joined together in opposition of legalization but acknowledged it would likely happen anyway. Governor Cuomo said he wants it to be part of the budget due April 1 - even though lawmakers who support legalization say the timeline is simply too tight.

    At sheriff's offices in both Monroe and Livingston Counties, new deputy dogs are not being trained to sniff out cannabis. That is a skill that could be added later, if legalization does not happen.

    Hutch - who loves to work - is pretty excited to be taking on additional training. He will now learn to search for deceased victims - adding another skill and insurance against being forced into early retirement.

    "Being a dog lover, I can't imagine stopping with Hutch in the middle of his career and starting another (dog)," Draper said. "That would be hard on me mentally and hard on him."

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