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Narcotics K-9s that smell marijuana in Ohio will need to retire. A proposal would help police forces foot the bill

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Nearly 300 drug-sniffing police dogs in Ohio will need to retire in the near future as the legalization of cannabis has rendered their marijuana-smelling snouts a liability for law enforcement across the state.

Several agencies, including the Ohio State Highway Patrol, have already begun replacing their marijuana-imprinted canines with narcotics dogs not trained to root out cannabis. Others have plans to quickly phase out their K-9s for fear of the legal ramifications of their alerts.

The latest state to legalize adult-use marijuana, Ohio is also the latest state facing a blow to its police dog force, something Rep. Sean Brennan called an “unintended consequence” of the passage of Issue 2. Dogs trained to detect marijuana cannot be reliably retrained to forget it, meaning any alert they give to the presence of narcotics can be challenged in court.

With law enforcement agencies big and small facing potentially astronomical costs to replace marijuana-imprinted dogs, Brennan (D-Parma) and Rep. Josh Williams (R-Sylvania) hope to ease the financial burden – and soon. Their proposal, House Bill 396, would give police forces up to $20,000 per K-9 to offset the cost of acquiring, training and equipping narcotics dogs that don’t alert to the smell of cannabis.

“If you’re a drug-trafficker from Pennsylvania and you want to transport cocaine in the state of Ohio across to Indiana, all you need to do is put a joint in your cupholder,” Williams, a criminal defense attorney by trade, said. “If the dog alerts on that vehicle, and he’s been trained and imprinted on the smell of marijuana, the whole entire search gets thrown out.”

Sgt. Joe Albert, public information officer for Columbus police, said although the department stopped training K-9s to detect marijuana after hemp was legalized in late 2018, four marijuana-imprinted dogs remain on the force. Columbus police plans to retire two of those dogs within the year, he said; the force currently has five narcotics dogs trained to ignore cannabis.

“$20,000 per K9 can help ensure agencies have a way to continue to address all the crime and community issues that come with illegal drug activity,” Albert said in an email.

No marijuana-imprinted dogs remain on the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s canine unit, and the patrol stopped training marijuana-imprinted dogs in 2018, said its public information officer. But the patrol has retired at least four narcotics dogs since Issue 2 passed last November, although it’s not clear how many were retired specifically for being trained to detect cannabis.

Smaller police departments, with smaller budgets and fewer dogs, face potentially significant cuts to their canine units. Brennan said his hometown department in Parma, for instance, will have to retire three of its five dogs. Chillicothe police’s two K-9s are both trained to detect cannabis, according to the department’s website.

There are 298 marijuana-smelling narcotics K-9s in Ohio, according to data Brennan received from the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy. Under Williams and Brennan’s bill, the state would allocate $6 million to kickstart the transition from marijuana-imprinted canines. After that, remaining cannabis-smelling canines would be replaced with money from the cannabis social equity and jobs fund, a fund created from tax revenue from eventual recreational sales.

Other states have grappled with the retiring of police dogs en masse after the legalization of marijuana. In Colorado, for instance, a court ruling solidified concerns that marijuana-imprinted dogs would threaten the admissibility of their drug alerts in court. A slate of narcotics K-9s were retired in Virginia after its legislature passed a law banning police stops or searches based solely on marijuana odor.

As lawmakers’ proposals to regulate marijuana remain at a standstill in the legislature, Brennan and Williams hope their bill, which has 30 cosponsors, can move quickly – before the consequences play out in police departments or court.  

“I don’t think that anybody that voted for Issue 2 saw that this would be a problem, and I’ve never talked to anybody that is anti-police canine,” Brennan said.

HB396 has been referred to the House Finance Committee, awaiting its first hearing.


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