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Tag: drug-sniffing

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.

Drug-sniffing Dixie avoids pink slip

Dixie, a drug-sniffing police dog in Snohomish, Washington, was saved from the budget ax when the city council voted Tuesday night not to include her position on a list of those being cut.

The $16,000 a year the city would gain from axing her wouldn’t be worth the loss of her skills and the city’s investment in her training, Mayor Randy Hamlin said.

Dixie is one of two dogs on the force. The other, Kizar, is trained as a tracking dog.

A collie-shepherd mix, she’s never missed a day of work — even when she was injured, said her partner, Sgt. Jeffrey Shelton, who showed up at the council meeting to plead for her job.

Dixie has found $25,000 in cash and seven pounds of drugs, Shelton said. He held up a plastic bag of 25 grams of cocaine to emphasize his point, the Everett Herald reported.

Mayor Hamlin said the cash-strapped city may look into whether there’s a way to keep some of the drug money Dixie has located to pay for her care.

“A police dog could be self-sustaining given some creativity,” he  said.

The city needs to cut about $180,000 in order to have enough money to pay the bills.

Now parents can get drug-sniffing dogs

Just in time for school — and just a little bit creepy  — a New Jersey company has announced what it says is the first enterprise of its kind: making drug-sniffing dogs available to parents concerned their children might be using drugs.

Launching to coincide with the back-to-school season, Sniff Dogs, LLC offers a confidential drug detection service — police aren’t involved at all – in which dogs specially trained to locate drugs discreetly sniff out Junior’s room or workplace.

The company’s website explains how it works.

“You set up an appointment with Sniff Dogs when you’re going to be home by yourself. A search performed while the party-of-concern is not present is a critical success factor — as not only does it reduce conflict and anxiety, it also helps to retain discretion, should a subsequent search be warranted.”

The website says the dog doesn’t actually locate the drugs, or specify what type, but just gives a sign that they are present.

It’s up to parents to ransack Junior’s room after that.

Founded by a Union County woman, Sniff Dogs uses dogs trained to locate marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methadone, xanax and ecstasy –- “as a private service with no law enforcement or government affiliation.”

In a press release, the company says the discovery of drugs can lead to a “fact-based conversation with their loved ones regarding drug use, allowing for early intervention.”

Sniff Dogs was founded by a Summit, N.J. mother, who thought other means of drug detection were “extremely limited and universally intrusive,” and that drug-sniffing dogs “fosters a more supportive and family-friendly solution for intervention.

Branches in Ohio and New Jersey have already been established and additional Sniff Dogs operations will be launching soon, the press release says.

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