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Do you smell that? Local K-9 officers train differently now that pot is legal

Posted at 8:26 PM, Feb 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-05 00:12:18-05

They’re trained to sniff out the bad guys and illegal drugs, but with marijuana laws changing the role of a K-9 officer is, too.

In departments across the country, the new laws are forcing some K-9s into early retirement.

That’s not the case here on the Central Coast because dogs like “Magnum” with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office still have a lot of work to do.

During a training session, Magnum sniffed out the hidden drugs in a small room in less than ten seconds. He’s trained to detect all narcotics, including marijuana.

“We chose not to take him off the marijuana because it’s still illegal to have in the jail,” Deputy Sheriff Mike McNeil said. He added that a dog can be trained to deter from marijuana, but it’s not 100-percent reliable. So the next generation of K-9 officers is being trained differently when it comes to vehicle searches.

“Most agencies are trending of staying away from marijuana because of that issue,” McNeil said, referring to marijuana now being legal in California.

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office is one of those agencies.

“The two new dogs we are not training to locate the odor of marijuana,” Senior Deputy/K-9 Handler Allen Barger said.

As his dog “Jack” gets set to retire, his replacement will be in service for about five to seven years and in that time a lot can change.

“In five to seven years, who knows what California law is going to be in regards to marijuana?” he said. “We want them to be in the field working uninhibited by that if they do change the law.”

Not all agencies are taking this stance. Statewide, the legalization of pot will not change K-9 protocol for the California Highway Patrol.

“The dogs we have going through in the future will be trained in the exact same way that the dogs currently out in the field are being trained,” CHP Officer Danny Maher said.

Officers with all agencies said they still have the right to search vehicles for marijuana because it’s legal to a point: a person is allowed one ounce in a vehicle and it must be sealed and non-accessible. It’s similar to the laws that apply to alcohol.

“If we walk up on a car and smell alcohol we are going to continue that investigation until we can determine that you are within the legal limits. Same with marijuana,” Officer Maher said.

As for early retirement, the agencies we talked with said they will not retire their K-9’s early because of the new marijuana laws.