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With legal recreational marijuana, police officers in Greater Lansing are being forced to find ways to search cars other than employing drug-sniffing dogs.
With few exceptions, police need probable cause of a crime to perform a search. The smell of a freshly bagged ounce, for instance, would usually do the trick. But that was before Proposal 1 legalized adult use and possession last November. Local police now view under 2 and a half ounces of unlit and properly contained weed in a car to be legal.
But their sharp-nosed canines aren’t so finely attuned to the new laws.
Meridian Township Police Chief Ken Plaga explained how K9 Yukon — like several other police dogs servicing Ingham County — is trained to detect five separate drugs, including marijuana. But he doesn’t bark a higher pitch for crack cocaine. Their dogs quietly alert officers in the same fashion for every substance.
And with marijuana’s new legal status, an indication from the dog effectively equates to only an 80 percent chance of illegal drug possession.
“Our dog hasn’t become useless,” Plaga explained. “We still use him for tracking. However, with legal marijuana, he doesn’t just turn around and tell us whether it’s methamphetamine. I’d say, really, it has impacted the usefulness. If marijuana is legal, what is the use in having a canine that can detect it? What’s the good in that?” Given the newfound unreliability of dozens of regional police dogs, Ingham County prosecutors have since offered some advice: Find another reason to search for drugs or weapons during a traffic stop. Michigan State Police Lt. Darren Green labeled it a “transition period” that’ll rely on some more old-fashioned police work.
“This is essentially undoing the training of 18 years of walking up and searching thousands of cars,” Green said. “We’ll make the adjustment, and it might affect our ability to find other things that could be illegal, but we’ll just have to use other tools.”
Green said troopers can still lean on conflicting travel plans or wads of $100 bills as probable cause, at least until new dogs without a nose for marijuana can eventually join the force.
Mike Morgan, master trainer and owner of Mid-Michigan Police K9, explained how a dog’s trigger poses an 80 percent chance that a more dangerous substance could be lurking inside a vehicle. He said the recent response from law enforcement is only a “kneejerk” reaction to case law that has yet to fully develop in Michigan.
“I think over the next five or six years, we’re going to see agencies curtailing drug enforcement efforts with our dogs, simply because marijuana is legal,” he said. “A lot of that is going to get lost in the process, especially in terms of drug trafficking on these major interstates. It’s an unfortunate path that some agencies have taken.”
Green said the state police agency is training a new litter of pups for service later this year. Plaga thinks K9 Yukon’s replacement will follow suit. Top law enforcement officials in both Lansing and East Lansing also voiced similar expectations.
“When these dogs age out, we’ll need to make that decision,” said Ingham County Sheriff ’s Capt. Greg Harris. “We still have a jail to maintain, and marijuana will always be illegal inside there.
We can still use the dogs for that purpose, but I really doubt any of our road dogs will still be trained in the odor of marijuana going forward.”
Ingham County has two dogs trained to detect pot. Meridian Township has one. Three are working with the Lansing Police Department and two more are assigned to the East Lansing Police Department. Several more work with the Michigan State Police. But don’t worry: They haven’t been rendered totally useless in the process.
Until newly trained replacements arrive, the dogs can still be used to help track down suspects or missing people, and sniff around for marijuana where it still remains illegal — like inside jails or stashed inside high school lockers. Besides, with marijuana being legal, police have no reason to associate that smell with criminal behavior.
“Hopefully, crack and heroin won’t fall between the cracks in the process and we’ll still be able to get them off the streets,” Green added. “It’s a transition period but we’ll figure it out. We respect the new law and the democratic process. The last thing we’d want to do is conduct ourselves in a way that disrespects that process.”