Out of work: K-9 dogs that have a nose for pot
Officer Tulo will turn in his badge in January, forced into early retirement by the country’s waning war on weed.
In his eight years with the police department of Rifle, Colorado, Tulo, a yellow Lab retriever, has aided more than 170 arrests in the town of 9,000. But one of his skills hasn’t just fallen out of demand since the state legalized marijuana, it has become a liability: State court rulings mean that Tulo’s keen nose for pot imperils his work on other drug cases.
As states and cities loosen their drug laws, the highly trained dogs that their police departments use to sniff out narcotics can’t always be counted on to smell the right thing.
“A dog can’t tell you, ‘Hey, I smell marijuana’ or ‘I smell meth,’ ” said Tommy Klein, Rifle’s police chief. “They have the same behavior for any drug that they’ve been trained on. If Tulo were to alert on a car, we no longer have probable cause for a search based on his alert alone.”
Older canine workers across the U.S. — and 14 narcotics dogs in Canada, where retail pot sales began last month — are being eased out of work. When the police department in Winnipeg, Manitoba, went shopping this year for a pup, the Belgian Malinois that they chose, named Ivy, arrived with a more modern advantage: She has no reaction to pot.
In many places that have legalized the drug, including California, Oregon, Maine and Vermont, most new recruits are, like Ivy, no longer being trained to sniff out pot. And even departments in states where marijuana remains verboten are hedging their bets.
“I just did a dog for a department in Texas that asked me not to put marijuana on her,” said Ron Cloward, owner of Top Dog Police K-9 Training and Consulting in Modesto, California.
In Colorado, an appeals court ruling in 2017 helped hasten Tulo’s retirement. Kilo, a drug-detection dog in rural Moffat County, flagged a man’s truck for containing contraband. When officers searched it, they found a pipe with what appeared to be methamphetamine residue.
But Kilo was trained to find multiple drugs, including marijuana. Even though no marijuana was found in the truck, the three-judge panel said Kilo’s signal was no longer a reliable indicator of illegal activity. The court ruled officers therefore had no legal grounds to search the truck, and overturned the conviction.
The Colorado Supreme Court is reviewing the decision and plans to hear arguments in December. But some departments in the state aren’t waiting to show their marijuanatrained dogs the door.
Arvada, a community outside Denver, decided to retire one of its older dogs, Beaker, because of that case and other court rulings. Officer Brian Laas handed Beaker’s duties over to Rudy, a younger dog who is trained to detect four illegal drugs — cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy and meth — but not pot.
“This has been a really difficult thing for some of the smaller departments that can’t afford to take out trained dogs,” said Laas, who is president of the Colorado Police K-9 Association.