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August 16, 2013

Legalized pot may lead to K-9 unit re-training

DENVER — Like the good drug dog he's trained to be, Vader barks and scratches the Chevrolet Suburban's running board when he smells a bag of marijuana hidden between the doors.

Yet the mission for the 80-pound Belgian Malinois is unclear now that Coloradans 21 and older can legally possess as much as an ounce (28 grams), of marijuana. Several new dogs on his 10-member K-9 team won't be trained to sniff out weed while some, like Vader, will keep trying to nose out the drug.

"There are so many unanswered questions," said Colorado Springs police officer Andrew Genta, the K-9 unit's head trainer. "There have not been any test cases to say yes or no we do not have the right to do this."

With new laws that aim to treat marijuana possession much like that of alcohol, law-enforcement agencies in Colorado and Washington state are grappling with whether they should retrain their drug-sniffing dogs to ignore marijuana, retire older pooches who alert when they smell the drug, obtain new animals, or make no changes to their programs.

One issue is whether police can continue to use dogs trained to find pot without violating citizens' rights, in an environment in which marijuana is legal under state law. Officers are also concerned that defense lawyers may use evidence found by such dogs to their advantage in court.

"What's going to come up is a case where a dog hits on a car with two pounds of cocaine," said Sal Fiorillo, tactical operations lieutenant of the Colorado Springs Police Department's Specialized Enforcement Division.

"The defense attorney will say that the dog wasn't hitting on the cocaine, he was hitting on a half-ounce of marijuana, and that's legal," he added. In such a scenario, the lawyer may try have the evidence suppressed because the dog can't differentiate between cocaine and marijuana.

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