After Prop. 64, Legal Questions Surround Drug-Sniffing Dogs

There is good news for the many canines who are trained to sniff out marijuana for police departments across the state. Despite pot's newly legal status, California law enforcement officials say their services are still needed and that they won’t be retiring any dogs en masse. Ultimately, however, their presence on the force could prove to be a legal headache.

There have been some shifts in canine usage since the passage of Prop. 64. Some dogs are being pulled from routine patrols and fewer dogs are being trained to detect marijuana specifically. But, overall, departments are sticking to the status quo. There are still marijuana-related crimes out there, officers say. And as long as greed exists, there will always be a place for pot-sniffing dogs on the force.

“While laws regarding marijuana have changed, certain activities are still considered crimes,” said Giselle Talkoff, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Police Department. “Laws and regulations still govern sales, possession and transport, (and) there are times when the illegal possession of marijuana can coincide with other crimes.”

San Francisco PD, San Jose PD and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office are among those that say they’ll hang out to their current arsenal of drug-sniffing pooches.

It’s good news for Fido, sure. But it raises significant legal questions, according to civil rights advocates.

“Drug dogs are trained to smell four different drugs. They’re not taught to differentiate between them,” criminal defense attorney Lauren Mendelsohn explained. “Having a dog indicate they smell something gives an officer probable cause to obtain a warrant.”

That’s a problem because, under Prop. 64, legal amounts of marijuana cannot form the basis of a legal search. Similar concerns have been expressed by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a national consortium of retired police officers who oppose the War on Drugs.

It may be time for the U.S. Canine Police Association to provide some guidance to states that have legalized marijuana. Recommendations could include retraining, which most experts think possible. After all, the last thing anyone wants are hordes of unemployed canines. But we also can’t throw our civil liberties to the dogs.