Drug dogs not being trained to detect odor of marijuana

New law changes county agencies' new canines' job

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Running his nose along the carpet, Luca sniffed a pile of phone books on the floor before lifting his head to a wooden bench in the dimly lit room.

Within seconds, the 19-month-old German shepherd stopped and whipped his head back and forth as his ears perked up and his tail started to wag. Putting his paws on the bench, he lifted himself up. The muscles of his furry body tightened as he put his nose to a black fan perched on an alcove in the wall.

"Find! Find," yelled his handler, Battle Ground police Officer Chris Crouch. His four-legged partner had smelled out the heroin hidden inside.

Luca is one of several dogs going through a 10-week canine academy -- the first set of local police dogs not being trained to detect marijuana.

"We're going through the exact same training process we have in the past, we're just not doing that odor," said Jack Anderson, canine trainer with the Vancouver Police Department.

Officers in the room tossed the dog a large rubber toy, which Luca snatched from the air and wrestled to the ground.

"That's payday," Anderson said. "No stipends, no checks, just toys."

The training includes teaching the dogs to bite hostile suspects, track humans and sniff out illegal drugs.

That list of drugs has shrunk from five to four: heroin, methamphetamine and crystal and powder forms of cocaine.

With the passage of Initiative 502, Washington residents older than 21 can legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana among other amounts of marijuana-infused products.

The county recently saw the addition of six new police dogs -- the Clark County Sheriff's Office added three dogs this year while Vancouver, Battle Ground and Washougal police departments each added one dog.

Keeping marijuana out of the dogs' curriculum made sense, said Mike McCabe, special operations commander for the sheriff's office. He said if the law changes at all, it's easier to introduce the marijuana scent to the dogs' training than to try to train them not to remember the drug.

Because some agencies still have dogs who are trained to detect marijuana, the decision to not train the new dogs on the drug gives the regional team a mix of both kinds of dogs.

"It's still illegal to sell, deliver, and manufacture marijuana," Vancouver police Special Operations Sgt. Kathy McNicholas said. It's also not allowed in places such as jail and school campuses.

When dogs alert their officer to an illegal drug, they cannot indicate which kind of drug they've found or let their handler know how much of the drug they smell. So, if a dog is trained to detect marijuana, when the dog alerts it may be alerting to a legal amount of marijuana.

"We will just do some more due diligence," McNicholas said.

McCabe said that he thought the future of police work in Washington includes dogs not trained to detect marijuana. Regulating pot will become the responsibility of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, he said.

"Realistically, there's going to be less need for a marijuana detection dog in this state," he said. "When a dog alerts, you don't have to ask -- is the dog alerting on marijuana? You know it's not because it's never been trained to. It builds a much stronger case when you say this dog isn't trained to alert to marijuana."