Police service dog training could change if marijuana is legalized in Nebraska

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (KSNB) - Legalization of marijuana could change how police service dogs are trained, and could even force police to start fresh with a new batch of dogs.

This comes after a state senator proposed a ballot measure that would give voters the chance to vote on the legalization of medical marijuana

Police service dogs are trained to detect four types of drugs; heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.

Trooper Matt Workman has been a dog handler with the Nebraska State Patrol’s Police Service Dog Division for three years. He’s been in charge of Luke, a Belgian Malanois, for eight months.

Luke is one of eight police service dogs with the Nebraska State Patrol. They train at the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island.

The training starts out as visual. They'll put one of the four drugs in with a box of toys to develop what they call "smell memorization" for the dogs. The toys also give the dogs a reason to want to find the drugs.

"This is our cocaine box. So we have actual cocaine here,” said Trooper Workman. “And where we get these drugs, these are actual seizures by the state patrol at one time that'll go into our evidence, and then we'll use that for training purposes."

Once the dog detects the odor of one of those drugs, they're trained to sit as an indication behavior. This lets the handler know the dog has pinpointed where the controlled substance is. In some situations, the dog can't sit. So he may stand or lie down as the indication behavior.

The dogs don't actually ingest the drugs, so there's no need to fret. The purpose is to get the dogs acquainted with the smell of the drugs so they'll know what to sniff out.

This is the part that would make it difficult if one of the drugs the dog is familiar with is legalized.

“We cannot get him to stop alerting or indicating on one of the specific drugs, just because it’s been imprinted in their mind that one of those four drugs is what they indicate on, it’s what they get rewarded for,” Trooper Workman said.

Which could be problematic for the dogs’ current training process.

The dogs, of course, can’t tell police which of the four drugs they detect. This means their handlers only know they may have found one of the four controlled substances they were trained on.

Workman said in his opinion, it would be nearly impossible to reverse the training all the dogs have and retrain them to ignore the smell of marijuana.

“If marijuana were to legalize in the state of Nebraska, I’m fairly certain we would have to cycle the current dogs out and change our, what I talked about before, those four odors, we would just have to get rid of marijuana,” Trooper Workman said.

Their police dogs are from Europe, and cost an average of $10,000 per dog. So bringing in a new batch of dog wouldn’t be cheap.

Workman also said all of this would depend on the extent to which marijuana would be legalized. He said the amount people are allowed would also factor in to how they might train the dogs in the future.

Workman said marijuana is the most detected drug in the state of Nebraska for the state patrol. He said they’ve been finding larger quantities of it coming from Colorado since its been legalized there.

If the dogs do indicate to the odor of a controlled substance, the consequences can vary depending on the drug, and the amount of the drug.

If you're caught with methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine, it's automatically a felony charge. If you're caught with marijuana with the intent to distribute, that's also a felony.

Workman said the dogs will continue being trained the way they are unless marijuana is legalized in Nebraska.