How Many Drug-Sniffing Dogs Will Be Killed By Cannabis Legalization?

Spoiler: None. It just turns out an Illinois police department is full of doggone liars.

Last week, word came out of Illinois—via Bloomington newspaper The Pantagraph—that the effects of cannabis legalization in that state were likely to have a dire and unforeseen side effect: Drug-sniffing dogs, unable to be retrained, would likely have to be euthanized.

“The biggest thing for law enforcement is, you’re going to have to replace all of your dogs,” said Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett. “So to me, it’s a giant step forward for drug dealers, and it’s a giant step backwards for law enforcements and the residents of the community.”

The training director of the K-9 Training Academy in Macon County, Chad Larner, took the sentiment one step further. Larner insisted it would be impossible to retrain the dogs, claiming it would amount to “extreme abuse” to try to change their thinking. Further, Larner stated that because K-9 dogs are trained not to be social, a number of dogs would likely have to be euthanized.

Law-enforcement groups, animal-rights groups, and cannabis-advocacy groups all over the country immediately cried foul. “It’s asinine. I fell out my chair when I saw that. It’s just … it’s insane,” officer Marcell Patterson, the canine coordinator for the Oakland Police Department in California, told Newsweek. Patterson said was a “ridiculous” proposition. At this time, no K-9 dogs have been euthanized in Oakland as a result of California’s marijuana legalization.

The fact-checking website Snopes looked into the viral story and found that many departments particularly didn’t like the idea that the dogs weren’t social and couldn’t be socialized. “That’s nonsense,” Seattle Police Department spokesperson Sean Whitcomb told Snopes. K-9 dogs traditionally live with their handlers and their families. “The dogs that we would retire would stay with the handler,” added Whitcomb. A representative from the Denver police department, where cannabis has been legal for medicinal use since 2000, stated, “We actually want them to be people-friendly. It puts people at ease around the dogs and this leads to more effective deployments.”

It’s worth noting the source of the original story. The Pantagraph, read by over 100,000 people, used to be partially owned by billionaire Warren Buffett, who also just happens to be Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett’s dad. (Buffett’s Berskire Hathaway conglomerate sold its remaing shares in Lee Enterprises, which owns the The Pantagraph, in 2017.) The Illinois received a $2.2 million grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in 2016 to support K-9 units in 33 counties across the state, and the foundation has awarded over $20 million in grants to Macon County law- enforcement groups since 1999. Sheriff Buffett, who is staunchly anti-cannabis legalization, just released his new book, Our 50-State Border Crisis: How the Mexican Border Fuels the Drug Epidemic Across America. On top of that, Macon County currently has only one K-9 drug-sniffing dog on active duty, with another in training.

It is true that once a dog has been trained to alert for a smell, it’s nearly impossible to untrain them. But even in states with legalization, there are places where cannabis is illegal—like jails and prisons—and many K-9 units are simply being sent to those departments. Others are being trained to sniff out much, much larger amounts of cannabis, like illegal grow operations. Most police departments, including SPD, have just stopped training the newer dogs to check for cannabis.

Correction (May 17): The story originally cited Warren Buffett as the owner of The Pantagraph. But in 2017, Buffett sold his remaining shares in Lee Enterprises, which runs The Pantagraph. The story has been tweaked to note that change.

Illustration by James the Stanton/@gnartoons

Illustration by James the Stanton/@gnartoons