Illinois Police Threaten to Kill K-9 Dogs if Marijuana Is Legalized

German shepherd K-9 police dog asleep on the road

If Illinois legalizes recreational marijuana by ballot measure this November, police may have to "put down" many of the 275 K-9 dogs trained to recognize narcotic substances across the state. Police organizations oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and some marijuana advocates have condemned them for dangling canine death as a political tool.

Police agencies invest thousands of dollars and months of training to teach dogs to sniff out and alert officers to the presence of various illegal narcotics, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs. These dogs, affectionately known as K-9 units, are very specialized, and police insist that it would be "cruel" to retrain them.

If the state legalizes marijuana, "the biggest thing for law enforcement is, you're going to have to replace all of your dogs," Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett told The Pantagraph. His private foundation paid $2.2 million in 2016 to support K-9 units in 33 Illinois counties. "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."

States that have already legalized marijuana have taken various approaches to the K-9 issue. Officers in Washington state have attempted to retrain their animals to ignore marijuana, and trained new police dogs to smell all narcotics besides pot. In other states, agencies have kept pot-sniffing dogs and continued to search for large amounts of the drug not allowed under the law.

Chad Larner, training director of the K-9 Training Academy in Macon County, told The Pantagraph that retraining dogs would amount to "extreme abuse." K-9s are rewarded for successfully identifying the presence of narcotics, and they continue to train regularly with their handlers for a suggested minimum of 16 hours per month. Larner insisted that there is no guarantee the dogs could be broken of their original training.

"We do not want to subject innocent citizens or motorists who travel through Illinois ... to unlawful search and seizures," the director explained. He estimated there are about 275 certified narcotic-detecting K-9s in the state, and that most of them are dual-purpose, trained to find drugs and to track and apprehend suspects and missing persons.

Assistant Police Chief Steve Petrilli of the Normal Police Department told The Pantagraph it would be impossible to teach the dogs to ignore odors they have been trained for years to recognize. Replacing all the dogs would cost millions.

Tragically, Larner said many K-9s are trained not to be social. They have been trained for these specific purposes, and so if marijuana were to be legalized, a large number of police dogs would have to be euthanized.

Dan Linn, executive director of the marijuana advocacy group Illinois NORML, attacked this K-9 argument as a "red herring."

"The idea that legalizing for adults to have an ounce on them will equal ... all these dogs being euthanized, that seems kind of ridiculous and hyperbolic," Linn told The Pantagraph.

Bloomington Police Public Affairs Officer Elias Mendiola and Normal Assistant Police Chief Petrilli said retired K-9 dog units in their districts typically continue to live with their handlers. They dismissed the idea that any dogs would be euthanized because of retirement.

If Illinois legalized marijuana, it may not claim the lives of dogs in Normal or Bloomington, but these police spokesmen do not speak for all of the police in the state. Both the Illinois Sheriffs' Association and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police oppose marijuana legalization, and it is not unreasonable to suggest that they might sacrifice an innocent dog or two as a publicity stunt against marijuana.

Even so, Linn is correct that any canine deaths resultant from legalizing marijuana would be a "red herring," rather than an argument against legalized pot. Any legal change has externalities, and while it is tragic police would consider euthanizing K-9s for this reason, Illinois voters should focus on other reasons for and against the drug.