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What do marijuana-sniffing dogs and newspaper reporters have in common?

phelan

What’s a working dog to do? You learn your trade, hone your skills, toil away, only to find out that the world around you has evolved to a point where those skills are no longer much appreciated.

It’s why you can’t find a blacksmith too easily nowadays. It’s what happened to the elevator operator, the milkman, and, at least from my biased and disgruntled point of view, the newspaper reporter.

Such too was the case with Phelan, a marijuana-detecting Labrador retriever in the employ of the police department in Lakewood, Colorado.

With the passage by Colorado voters of Initiative 502 — legalizing the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana — the skill Phelan was best known for is no longer much in demand there.

In fact, his  biggest asset has become a liability, the News Tribune reports.

Phelan was handed his pink slip this week and sold to the state Department of Corrections, where, in his new job, his inability to distinguish between marijuana and other drugs won’t be a problem — all drugs being illegal behind bars.

The same story is playing out in Washington state,  where voters also legalized marijuana use, and where police departments are figuring out whether to cease training new dogs in marijuana detection, put their existing dogs through ”pot desensitization” training or just retire them and send them out to pasture, according to the Associated Press.

Take it from me, pasture sucks. Dogs and people, I think, prefer having a mission.

But Phelan’s mission, at least in the two states where moderate amounts of marijuana are now permitted, no longer much needs to be accomplished. Worse yet, alerting to small amounts of marijuana could mess up prosecutions in cases involving other, still illegal, drugs.

Say Phelan alerted to drugs in the trunk of a car. Phelan’s inability to distinguish between heroin and marijuana — or at least specify to his handler to which he is alerting — means any subsequent search by officers could have been based on Phelan detecting an entirely legal drug, in an entirely legal amount.

That means the “probable cause” the search was based on might not have really existed, and that means any evidence of illegal drugs subsequently found in the search would likely be tossed out.

Thus Phelan, unless he were to be retrained to drop marijuana-detecting from his repertoire — not easily accomplished — has ended up going from cutting edge law enforcement tool to an old school has been.

Drug detecting dogs — traditionally trained to alert to the smell of marijuana, heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine and cocaine –  can’t specify what they’re smelling, much less the quantity it might be in.

In Washington, the new law decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of the drug for individuals over 21, and barred the growth and distribution of marijuana outside the state-approved system.

Dog trainer Fred Helfers, of the Pacific Northwest Detection Dog Association, said abandoning pot training is a “knee-jerk” reaction: “What about trafficking? What about people who have more than an ounce?” Still, he’s helping departments who want to put their dogs through ”extinction training” to change what substances dogs alert to. That takes about 30 days, followed by a prolonged period of reinforcement.

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission removed detecting marijuana from its canine team certification standards this year, and no longer requires dogs be trained to detect it, but some others say, given large amounts of pot are still illegal, it can still be a useful skill for a dog to have.

In Pierce County, prosecutor Mark Lindquist believes new dogs are the answer — dogs trained in sniffing out the other drugs, but not marijuana. He’s not convinced dogs can be re-trained. “We’ll need new dogs to alert on substances that are illegal,” he told the Associated Press.

Other police departments, like Tacoma’s, aren’t making any changes.

“The dog doesn’t make the arrest, the officer does,” said spokesperson Loretta Cool. “A canine alert is just one piece of evidence an officer considers when determining whether a crime has been committed.”

Phelan was one of two drug-sniffing dogs on the police force in Lakewood, Colorado. He’ll be replaced by Kira, a Belgian Malinois  who was trained not to alert when she smells marijuana. Duke, a Labrador retriever mix with the old-school training, will remain on the force for now.

Phelan, though, will be moving on, and I sympathize with the crime-fighting Lab.

His new gig in the slammer is clearly a step down the career ladder — not unlike going from being a newspaper reporter detecting corruption and injustice to an unpaid blogger who mostly (but not entirely) regurgitates material already written.

And, for Phelan, there’s the added insult of being sold for the lowly sum of one dollar.

Surely — old school as his talents may be – he was worth more than that.

Comments

Comment from Jen Brighton
Time June 12, 2013 at 12:26 pm

As a resident of Washington State and a law office employee, I found this article interesting. We’ve already seen some issues arise in the legal field and my employer does business law and real estate. I’ve also noticed a few “marijuana law” seminar flyers pass by my desk recently.

You’d think poor Phelan would at least be worth the sum of all his busts!

Comment from Alexis
Time June 12, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Despite some states legalizing marijuana for recreational use it is still a federal schedule 1 controlled substance. And, there is a growing backlash from intelligent people in many states including the two which legalized recreational use that is adamantly opposed to the widespread recreational use of this narcotic (sorry potheads – that’s the legal definition – narcotic). And I hope the backlash is successful. When the national news media revealed that last week’s building collapse which killed six people and injured dozens was caused by a crane operator who was not only high but had a long history of marijuana abuse (and alcohol abuse, etc. etc. etc.), a lot of people started wondering what is going on. There are still plenty of places for a highly trained dog such as this to work and working dogs love their work.

Typical misguided state government.

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