Here’s What Really Happens to Drug Dogs in Legal Cannabis States

(youngvet/iStock)

A headline in The Week magazine recently spooked a lot of dog lovers. “Illinois police claim if marijuana is legalized, they’ll have to kill their police dogs,” it said.

Wait, really?

No, not really. It turns out the scare was the product of misinterpretation and hyperbole. Here’s what happened.

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As Illinois contemplates legalizing marijuana, the local Pantagraph newspaper published a piece on what legalizing marijuana in their state might mean for the state’s drug-detection police dogs. “At this point, they’re trained on five different odors. Once they’re programmed with that, you can’t just deprogram them,” Steve Petrilli, the Normal Police Department’s assistant chief, a former K-9 handler, told the paper. “I think the implications of that would be huge.”

“I can’t even fathom why someone would make that statement.”
Assistant Chief Steve Petrilli, Normal Police Department

Though the original article says nothing about euthanizing the K-9 units, several follow-up pieces, including from the national magazine The Week, reported that legalization in Illinois would mean mass doggy murder throughout the state.

Understandably, the idea stirred outrage on both sides of the legalization question.

But what really are the implications of legalization for K-9 units that have been trained to detect cannabis? Are the dogs really that useless after they are no longer needed to detect pot? And is euthanasia really the most likely outcome?

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When I followed up with Petrilli, he said he never meant to suggest that the dogs would be killed. He insisted to Leafly that his comments have been misunderstood.

“It had nothing to do with euthanizing dogs.”
Steve Petrilli

“The topic of euthanasia, that whole comment, I hadn’t heard that until the article was published. That would never be considered. I can’t even fathom why someone would make that statement,” Petrilli said.

So what happened?

“At the time, I was being asked, with the legalization of marijuana in Illinois, how would that affect the K-9 units? I was a canine handler for eight years, I had a dog I spent years with and he retired with me, plus I’ve trained dogs, and the whole point I wanted to make was simply that once you train a dog on certain odors, you can’t just detrain them on one of the odors. It had nothing to do with euthanizing dogs.”

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Petrilli did back up one part of the original Pantagraph piece. It says, “If pot use becomes legal, the dogs would likely either have to be retrained — which some handlers say is impossible or impractical — or retired.”

But “retired,” he stressed, means these dogs would live out their days with their police officer. It doesn’t mean “be killed.”

That’s exactly what’s happened in other states.

“We do not euthanize our K-9s.”
Jay Casillas, Denver Police Department

Retraining or retiring dogs to live with an officer is the approach other legal-cannabis states have taken. And for the most part, it’s gone smoothly.

“Regarding the dogs in Anchorage Police Department’s K-9 unit, [euthanizing dogs] was certainly was not the case once recreational marijuana was legalized in the state of Alaska,” said Kendra Doshier, deputy communications director at the Anchorage Police Department.

“None of our dogs exist solely for sniffing out drugs,” Doshier explained. “All our K-9s are highly trained in a wide range of skills, including tracking suspects, recovering weapons, and finding lost or missing adults and children. They all live with their handlers at home with their families. When they’re on-duty, they’re officers assisting our department in a multitude of incidents. When they’re off-duty, they get all the same perks as a regular house dog. In short – no, we have not euthanized our dogs. That seems quite severe.”

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The word from Denver was similar.

“We do not euthanize our K-9s,” said Jay Casillas, a technician in the department’s media relations unit. While he noted that he can’t speak for other departments, Denver’s dogs now target large amounts of cannabis—not simple possession.

The dogs, Casillas said, are still trained on four odors: cannabis, cocaine, methamphetimines, and heroin. “ The only thing we changed with regard to marijuana legalization was training them to sniff larger amounts of marijuana [10 pounds or more] because we still have a booming black market for marijuana. When the dogs are retired, they usually stay with their police handler as a family pet, and a new dog is purchased to replace the one that was retired.”

The Washington Department of Corrections said it’s not aware of a single drug dog being euthanized in that state after it legalized cannabis for adult use in 2014. “To our knowledge,” said Communications Director Jeremy S. Barclay, “there were no cases of euthanasia amongst Washington canine officers when cannabis legalization occurred earlier this decade.”

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It turns out some retired police dogs are in fact euthanized after retirement—but that’s far from the norm, and it has nothing to do with cannabis.

There are two dominant disciplines that police dogs are trained in: detection and patrol. While detection dogs are trained to signal the presence of drugs or bombs, or example, others are trained to bite and hold potentially dangerous criminals.

Some dogs are trained as “dual-purpose dogs,” meaning they do both detection and control. Once these dogs are retired, there can be liability placing them with the average family simply because their biting tendencies can be hard to handle. Hypothetically, a small number of retired police dogs that are unable to be socialized and placed may end up being euthanized.

“We haven’t had many problems here in legal states. I’m on the side that it’s just part of a normal evolution of phasing out certain training.”
Steve Walter, owner and lead trainer, Nitro K-9

But, Steve Walter, owner and lead trainer at Nitro K-9 in Seattle, which has trained dogs for multiple law enforcement agencies, said he’s “disgusted” by the implication that would be the case with every police dog.

“Sure, some dogs are a lot to handle for average folks, but I’m sure they could be placed with retired cops or military personnel” who are better equipped to handle them, Walter said.

He was also skeptical of the claim that the dogs would need to be retired at all.

“Why would they be useless?” he asked. “Dogs can be trained to detect other substances, and sure, they might alert on a legal substance, but we haven’t had that many problems here in Washington and other legal states. Plus, some dogs can be deployed to other states where marijuana remains illegal.”

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Retraining police dogs to detect other substances shouldn’t be that expensive, Walter added, “but I think the main concern is false detection. A dog can alert on a legal substance, but we haven’t had many problems here in legal states. I’m on the side that it’s just part of a normal evolution of phasing out certain training.”

As Illinois considers cannabis legalization, Petrelli of the Normal Police Department told Leafly he’s open to that evolution. He said he wasn’t fully sure how legalization would affect the department—“We haven’t gotten to that point yet,” he said—put emphasized that putting down dogs would not be the department’s response

“That was never the intent of the Normal Police Department whatsoever to even consider as an option when a dog retires or even if this law passes,” he said. “That just wouldn’t be something we’d ever consider.”

So it looks like you can get off the phone with PETA and return to your Purple Kush. These dogs are going to be just fine.