BARRE — Vermont police dogs are no longer trained to recognize the smell of marijuana, a decision made in preparation for possible marijuana legalization.
“The class that is going through right now is not being trained to alert on marijuana odor,” said Robert Ryan, Vermont’s head K-9 training coordinator.
This year marks the first Vermont Police Academy K-9 class in which marijuana is left out of the training.
“We started talking about it last year and we made the decision for this class to not do marijuana,” said Ryan.
The reason according to Ryan, is the assumption that Vermont will legalize marijuana. “And if for some reason it doesn’t become legalized, it’s an odor that (dogs) can be trained to alert on later.”
Because pot has such a strong scent it’s easy to train the dogs, according to Ryan. For that reason, it is the drug that most police dogs are trained to recognize first.
After the decision, Ryan said he was initially concerned it would be difficult to train the K-9s to recognize other drugs.
“I was concerned about that. We started the dogs off on cocaine. By the end of the first day (of training) they were all recognizing that odor so it really hasn’t been the issue that I was worried about,” he said.
Vermont Police Academy trains all state and local police dogs, according to Lt. Timothy Oliver, state police K-9 coordinator.
If pot is no longer illegal, the effects could be costly, according to Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos.
“If Vermont were to legalize marijuana, it would have a profound impact on drug detection K-9s,” he said. “All local and state dogs would need to be replaced at significant cost to the state police and to municipalities that would have to get new dogs that were not trained to alert for marijuana.”
If marijuana becomes legal, police dogs already trained to recognize marijuana would no longer be used for typical drug searches in Vermont, according to Ryan, but that doesn’t mean they would lose their jobs entirely.
“The dogs that are already trained to smell marijuana are still going to be used,” said Ryan. “There will be plenty of uses for those dogs.”
He said the dogs could be used for prison contraband searches, federal police work and high school searches.
“It’s not going to be legal for high school kids to have marijuana (if the legalization bill passes),” said Ryan.
Steve Mitchell of the Oregon State Police said in an interview Wednesday that Oregon did exactly what Vermont is doing when talk of legalization began in the state.
“When the law was passed, we almost immediately transitioned our K-9s out and have now transitioned to K-9s that don’t alert to marijuana, just to all the other drugs that are illegal,” he said.
Mitchell said there have been no issues in the transition. Dogs that sniff out marijuana were given new jobs in schools and prisons.
If the Vermont legalization bill is approved, retail sale and personal use of marijuana is expected to be overseen by a cannabis control board within the Department of Public Safety. The board would have authority similar to the state’s Liquor Control Board. The Senate could vote on the bill as early as next week.
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