Pot puppies get pink slip

  • Saturday, January 31, 2015 10:43pm
  • News

The Alaska State Troopers’ 10 drug-sniffing dogs will be out of work once using and carrying small amounts of marijuana becomes legal Feb. 24.

Dogs can’t be un-trained to track one of the litany of drugs they were originally conditioned to sniff out, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Gary Folger said during a House Finance subcommittee meeting Thursday.

The Troopers’ 10 Belgian malinois, Dutch shepherds, German shepherds, Czech shepherds and yellow Labrador retrievers trained to track marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine will need to be replaced with dogs who can only identify the latter three substances.

Folger said purchasing new dogs and putting them and their troopers through the required three-month training will cost the department “no less than $50,000 a dog,” or half a million dollars.

“That’s actually a pretty weighty issue, bringing a whole new team of dogs into play, if you will,” said Public Safety subcommittee chairman Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham.

DPS spokeswoman Megan Peters said in an email the department does not yet have a timeline for replacing the dogs or know where the new dogs will come from.

Subcommittee member Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, asked Folger if the state’s existing dogs could be trained to sniff out marijuana in amounts greater than one ounce, the cutoff for legal possession under the ballot measure approved by voters in November.

That’s not possible, Folger said. He used an analogy to explain.

“A dog cannot detect a difference between one ounce or less,” he said. “A dog doesn’t know if it’s a quarter of a cheeseburger or a whole cheeseburger.”

The dogs must be replaced to uphold the intent of the citizen marijuana initiative. The new law prohibits law enforcement from using the presence of legal amounts of marijuana as a basis for search and seizure. If a drug-sniffing dog were to detect marijuana and that led to discovering a larger crime, those charges would have to be thrown out.

“The work troopers are doing on marijuana is very small… (It’s a) stepping stone to a larger crime,” Folger said. “If that very core piece is thrown out, that destroys the rest of the case, no matter the crime. … If we somehow used that court transaction to find the 10 bodies upstairs, in court down the road those 10 bodies will go away.”

In 2013, the Alaska State Troopers K9 Unit was responsible for 141 felony arrests and 64 misdemeanor arrests, according to department numbers. These statistics represent both drug and patrol arrests. Some of the dogs are used on patrol as well as for drug busts, Peters said.

LeDoux asked if there’s “any possibility of selling well-trained dogs to other states that don’t have Ballot Measure 2.”

Folger said it’s possible but “highly unlikely.”

“Once the cohesion is made between the trainer and his dog, it’s a bond that’s not easily broken,” Folger said.

The department’s drug-detecting dogs and their human partners are stationed all around the state. Three K9 units work in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, two in Anchorage; two in Fairbanks; and one each in Healy, the Kenai Peninsula and Ketchikan. They stay mostly in the regions in which they’re based but can travel around the state on special assignment, Peters said.

When asked if all 10 dogs would be put up for adoption, she said the department is still considering its options “and they may be different for different dogs.”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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