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Michigan's new marijuana law could mean early retirement for some police K-9's

Michigan State Police

The future for some drug detecting police canines is uncertain in Michigan, now that recreational marijuana is legal.

By one estimate, there are some 400 police K-9s in Michigan. The dogs are usually cross trained: tracking suspects, detecting explosives, cadavers, narcotics, etc. It’s unclear how many are trained in drug detection.  

In the past, dogs have routinely been trained to detect and alert their human partner to the presence of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and other illegal drugs. But with marijuana now legal in Michigan, some are concerned about what this may mean for the accuracy of the dog’s nose.    

In other states where marijuana is legal, police departments have retired canines early, in order to avoid potential legal problems with drug busts involving drugs other than marijuana.

F/Lt. Michael Shaw is a Michigan State Police spokesman. He says the MSP plans to keep all of its 55 dogs on the job, including those trained to detect marijuana.

“One thing about law enforcement is that technology evolves. It also evolves in the K-9s that we use,” says Shaw. “We’ll play it by ear. If we need less marijuana smelling dogs, we’ll have less. If we need to get more, we’ll get more.”

Shaw notes that under the new law there are places where possession of marijuana remains illegal, for example: in schools (both public and private), school buses and correctional facilities.

Still, Shaw says MSP will make decisions about training for future police K-9s as their understanding of Michigan’s new marijuana law and legal interpretations of the law play out. 

The average police canine is on the job for eight years. Bringing on a new dog and training it can cost thousands of dollars, which is another reason why police departments would like to keep the trained canines they already have.

Steve Armstrong is the regional president of the United States Police Canine Association. He’s also a former Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department K-9 supervisor.

He says it will be important for police dog handlers to adjust their training for K-9s used for drug detection. Armstrong says it’s important to use any down time to train their dog.    

“You would just eliminate that odor from your toolbox” says Armstrong.   

For those dogs facing retirement, the future is not bleak. Most become family pets. 

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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