Despite scare tactic, dogs will not be euthanized if pot is legal

Despite scare tactic, dogs will not be euthanized if pot is legal
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Police officials commonly use scare tactics to put the kibosh on various criminal-justice reforms by warning that (fill in the blank) legislation will lead to increases in crime or other bad things. Such warnings usually are taken seriously by the public and the media. But the latest example by a central Illinois police official has been the source of widespread mockery — deservedly so.

The head of a police canine training academy in Illinois recently told the Bloomington Pantagraph that if the state goes forward with a marijuana-legalization bill, police would have to euthanize some of their less-social drug-sniffing dogs. The detective, Chad Larner, forgot two cardinal rules when issuing dire warnings. First, never threaten puppies (or kittens). Second, don’t make claims that are easily debunked with a Google search.

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The story gained so much national attention that Larner’s boss, Decatur Police Chief James Getz Jr., rebutted the assertion in a Chicago Tribune article Wednesday. He called the statement a “bad choice of words” and noted that “there are many uses for these dogs.” That’s a relief for dog lovers, but the use of police dogs in the war on drugs is a topic that needs deeper examination because of its impact on people and not just canines.

 

First, let’s deal with Lerner’s initial assertion — that state marijuana legalization would result in mass retirements and even euthanizing of drug-sniffing dogs. California legalized recreational pot this year, and CBS Sacramento reported in March that, indeed, these dogs now are “overqualified” with the new law in place. But instead of putting them down, police departments have been using the critters in other roles, such as building searches, until they reach their proper retirement age.

In a trend that is gaining hold nationwide, newly-trained police dogs that replace the aging weed-sniffers are being taught not to notice weed. “More and more, police are training drug-sniffing dogs to ignore marijuana,” reported High Times. “Instead, training is becoming more focused on the detection of hard drugs, like heroin, ecstasy and methamphetamine.” That makes sense.

As for the dogs that may need to retire, police officials already have programs in place to find homes for them. Often, officers themselves adopt the dogs they worked with in their departments. Police agencies tend to be protective of these beloved service animals; they consider them “canine officers,” and in some cases the dogs — in all seriousness — receive pensions to pay for their medical needs. So it’s unlikely these animals will be mistreated by the people entrusted with their care.

Furthermore, other states have programs in place that could be adapted to drug-sniffing dog retirees. A new Maryland law, for instance, requires certain scientific research facilities to work with animal-rescue organizations to find homes for animals that no longer are needed for research. Obviously, states can take a similar approach with police dogs if many of the dogs seriously are in peril of being euthanized.

If the lives of dogs were a crucial police matter, police agencies should take a look at the large number of pet dogs that police shoot during marijuana raids.

Realistically, the issue of marijuana legalization has nothing to do with the welfare of dogs. That argument simply props up the drug-war status quo. Marijuana is a relatively harmless drug; it’s poor public policy to focus limited police resources on arresting people who smoke the stuff. This approach leads to massive enforcement costs, not to mention the human costs of incarcerating people for a victimless pastime.

As Radley Balko explained in a recent Washington Post column, the bigger issue involves civil liberties. Police dogs, he points out, have a poor record of accurately detecting drugs. They only were successful 44 percent of the time, based on a Chicago Tribune analysis that Balko referenced, often making “them no more accurate than a coin flip.” Perhaps it’s time to use the dogs in ways that better reflect their talents.

For instance, police could train the dogs to recognize large quantities of drugs rather than small amounts. But Balko argues that agencies “want the dogs to err on the side of false alerts” because it gives police wide latitude to search for illegal activity. It also enables police to more frequently use civil asset forfeiture. Under that process, police are allowed to take private property (cars, cash, etc.) if they find any trace of drugs — and use it to bolster their budgets.

The owner, who needn’t be convicted or even accused of a crime, has a long and tough process to get the seized property returned. Various states, including Illinois and California, have reformed the asset-forfeiture process to require police agencies to meet a greater burden of proof before taking property. But the U.S. Department of Justice backs laxer forfeiture procedures that let the locals partner with the feds and effectively circumvent the tougher state restrictions.

Marijuana-legalization efforts reduce the ability of police agencies to take property, redirect limited police resources to serious crimes and advance the cause of justice. Even if there were no alternative but to euthanize drug-sniffing dogs, Illinois ought to legalize it anyway for the sake of human beings. Fortunately, these dogs aren’t really in danger.

Steven Greenhut is Western regional director for the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C.