In wake of NY marijuana legalization, what happens to police dogs trained to find it?

H. Rose Schneider
Observer-Dispatch

In an empty building in Marcy, New York, a 7-year-old chocolate lab named Natalie navigated her way through a plywood maze.

Sniffing various pieces of furniture, she finally stopped to scratch at a metal cabinet. Her handler, Sgt. John Cusack with the Oneida County Sheriff's Office, opened it to reveal a bag of crack cocaine. Natalie received her favorite toy as a reward.

Natalie is one of the last dogs trained to detect marijuana in the Oneida County Sheriff's K9 program. Shortly after she arrived three years ago, dogs were no longer trained to detect the drug in anticipation of changing laws, Oneida County K9 program director Lt. James Danquer said. The sheriff's office trains roughly half a dozen dogs for other agencies, including the Rome and Utica police departments. 

Police agencies in states that have legalized marijuana — which as of this spring includes New York—are reducing or eliminating their K9 programs. While you can train a dog to detect a new odors, drug-sniffing K9s can't unlearn them. In addition, if dogs lead law enforcement to other crimes after detecting marijuana, it raises legal questions about probable cause.

"Once it's trained on it, you can't make that go away," Danguer said.

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Drug-sniffing dogs could pose legal issues

Natalie, a K9 and drug-sniffing dog for the Oneida County Sheriff's Office, scratches at a cabinet containing crack-cocaine Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021 at a training site in Marcy. The 7-year-old chocolate lab has spent three years working with her handler, Sgt. John Cusack, right.

Disbandment or retirement of K9s has been occurring across states where marijuana has been legalized, said Robert Swenszkowski, a criminal justice professor at Utica College and assistant sheriff for Oneida County.

Police can't tell whether a dog is alerting them to marijuana or an illegal substance, raising legal concerns.

"They can't risk that detection is going to be marijuana, then you're violating someone's rights," he explained.

The issue has been tested in Colorado, which voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. In 2019, the state Supreme Court ruled that an officer must establish probable cause before using a dog trained to detect marijuana. Otherwise, evidence found by a dog can be thrown out at trial.

Natalie, a 7-year-old chocolate lab, is one of the last K9s with the Oneida County Sheriff's Office trained to detect marijuana. In anticipation of the legalization of the drug, other dogs were no longer trained to detect it in the last couple years, deputies said.

The city of Rome is disbanding their K9 program after recreational marijuana use was legalized. The two dogs in the program will no longer be used as of Jan. 1, 2022, Rome police Lt. Sharon Rood said.

Utica police said dogs in their K9 program are now primarily delegated to patrol and bomb detection. New York State Police also stopped training K9s to detect marijuana in 2018, spokesman Beau Duffy said. Of their 98 dogs, 30 are trained in marijuana detection. None are being retired due to the law, Duffy said.

The efficacy and accuracy of drug-detecting K9s has been questioned in recent years, too, with some studies suggesting dogs could be influenced by their handlers' cues. Swenszkowski cited a study showing K9s have an efficacy rate of 70 to 90 percent. But, with marijuana being the easiest drug to detect, that rate could go down, he noted.

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What will happen to the dogs?

A card featuring Natalie, a K9 with the Oneida County Sheriff's Office, and her photo and information.

While some agencies may focus on training new dogs to detect other substances, other agencies may find it too expensive.

After the initial cost of training a dog, about $1,000 is spent by the sheriff's office per dog, as well as an extra hour of pay for the handler to care for the dog. Utica budgets about $3,000 for veterinary fees in their police department, Danguer said.

Natalie will be staying with the sheriff's K9 unit, though she can only be brought in after a search warrant is issued. She also is used in community affairs programs. The only other dog trained to detect marijuana with the sheriff's office, a German Shepherd named Bo, works in the Oneida County jail, where the substance is still not allowed on the premises.

But what happens to a dog who is "retired?" In Rome, Rood said the handlers will have to option to adopt their dogs from the city. This is typical in most agencies, Danquer said.

"The handler always gets the first option to get the dog," he said. "And in 24 years I've never seen the handler not take the dog."

New York State Team editor Jon Campbell contributed to this reporting.

H. Rose Schneider is the public safety reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. Email Rose at hschneider@gannett.com.