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Police drug dogs finding new roles after Arizona legalizes marijuana

The legalization of marijuana could end up putting some of the man's best friends out of work.

PHOENIX — The legalization of marijuana could end up putting some of the man's best friends out of work.

For years, K9s have been trained to sniff out illegal drugs, leading to busts around the country. 

In the past, dogs were normally trained to detect marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and meth. However, what's happening now that weed is legal recreationally? 

Why is it an issue?

"Dogs don't talk, so they can’t articulate. They are trained to find four odors. When a dog alerts we can't tell which of those odors they are finding," Wes Zygmont, trainer at K-9 Defense in Scottsdale said. 

In short, with a dog trained on detecting all four odors, there’s no way of knowing if a dog is alerting its owner of an illegal drug or weed.

Before marijuana was legalized, a dog's "alert" could provide probable cause for an officer to search for drugs. 

"Just the mere odor [is] no longer probable cause for a crime," Sgt. Andy Williams with Phoenix Police said. 

With the legalization of marijuana, some are concerned the continued use of four odor dogs could undermine court cases.

"So even using the tool, it completely undermines the case or any of the work the officer is doing," Zygmont said. 

So what happens to the dogs?

Across the state, there will be dozens of dogs that will need to be reassigned or replaced. 

Many dogs are trained to be dual purpose, so they can still serve a role even if they are no longer used to detect drugs.

The Department of Public Safety says as of November they had 18 marijuana sniffing dogs. Eight have been replaced so far, but they still need 10 more.

According to an email, some of the canines are still performing their non-drug detecting patrol duties while others have been retired from their responsibilities and have been adopted as family pets. 

Phoenix Police currently has 10 drug detection canines that alert to marijuana (along with other drugs), but that number will be decreased gradually. 

The department plans to continue to use those dogs to help detect large quantities of the drug. 

The department currently has nine K-9 that detect drugs other than marijuana. 

"For everyday work that we are doing, we need those new dogs that do not alert for marijuana," Sgt. Williams said.

Each dog costs upwards of $12,000. 

What about retraining?

Both Phoenix Police and DPS indicated they do not believe these dogs can be retrained to not smell marijuana. 

However, K-9 Defense thinks it is possible and is trying to prove it. 

"Rep after rep after rep I can get them back to those three orders," Zygmont said. 

K-9 Defense said it has retrained one dog so far and plans to start on a second one next week. 

They believe if they remove the positive reinforcement from finding marijuana, eventually, the dog will stop giving an alert to the scent. 

"Dogs don’t logic or reason, okay? They take snapshots of things," Zygmont said. 

By replacing those snapshots with new pictures of no positive reinforcement, K-9 believes it can retrain the dogs.  

However, dogs used to sniff out what DEA agents and law enforcement could never track now.

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