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The airport can be a stressful place. The long lines, strict TSA guidelines, and the act of triple-checking all your pockets to make sure you didn’t accidentally bring some cannabis along. We’ve all felt the immediate panic ensure after spotting a drug-sniffing dog in full uniform — even if there’s nothing on us. “Wait, can this dog smell the blunt I had last night?”

The truth is, it probably can — but does it even matter if it’s legal cannabis we’re talking about? Nothing illegal to see here, boys. Keep moving. With legal cannabis taking over the United States and Canada, are drug-sniffing dogs out of a job? Let’s explore this a little further.

What Do Drug-Sniffing Dogs Actually Sniff?

drug-sniffing dogs marijuana

Drug-sniffing dogs are trained to detect seven different illegal (or formerly illegal) substances.

Firstly, cannabis isn’t the only drug those pups are looking for. If you’re here reading this, you likely wouldn’t dream of putting cannabis and heroin in the same category, but dogs don’t make that distinction. According to canine website Cuteness, drug-sniffing dogs are trained to put up on seven variations:

  1. Cannabis
  2. Cocaine
  3. Methamphetamine
  4. Heroin
  5. Opiates
  6. Ecstasy
  7. LSD

But if it’s all the same to the dog…

Based on this list, we can still expect to see drug-sniffing dogs in the line of police work, except when it comes to cannabis in certain states. In theory, police dogs will be used to sniff out the remaining six drugs that are illegal in all 50 states and Canada. That makes sense, but what happens when a police dog smells something, points you out, and now you’re forced to reveal what’s in your pockets to the cops. Will it remain legal to strip search someone if they claim they’re only carrying legal cannabis?

Some Pooches Might be Looking for Work

To better understand this potentially messy situation, let’s see what Sgt. Tom Bechthold from the Edmonton Police Canine Department has to say. “To train on something that we knew was just a matter of time before it was legal just doesn’t make any sense to us,” he told The Star. Now, he predicts the 14 police dogs on his force will be out a job. The Edmonton police canine units conduct roughly 40 drug searches each year, but as of 2018 (the year cannabis became legal in Canada), they only conducted 28 searches. Thanks for the info, Tom!

Next to pitch in on the subject is Steven Penny, a professor in the faculty of law at the University of Alberta. Here’s what we’re wondering: will a police officer be authorized to search a person based on an indication from a dog trained to detect cannabis? To a dog, the drugs are all the same. But to a police officer, comparing legal cannabis to cocaine unjustifiable. It’s like a cop forcing you to turn your backpack inside out for something as harmless as Advil or birth control pills. People like their privacy too much to do the same for legal cannabis.

Here’s what professor Penny has to say: “If what [the dogs] are smelling is a product that people are legally entitled to possess, then that raises the question to whether the police would then have grounds to obtain a warrant to open the container or conduct a search of the location.” In his eyes, the next step is taking this dilemma to court.

“I think it really is going to be difficult for police to convince courts on the basis of a positive indication that they are then entitled to conduct a search when it is entirely possible and perhaps even probable that what the dog is indicating is the possession of a lawful substance.” Yeah, no kidding!

What’s Happening in Places Where Cannabis is Already Legal?

weed drug-sniffing dogs future

It may be possible to train dogs to alert only for cannabis beyond the legal amount, but that isn’t easy to do.

So, now let’s see what previous cities have done, like Colorado, for example, where cannabis was legalized in 2014. A spokesperson for the Denver Police Department gave a straightforward answer that seems simple enough: retrain the dogs to only indicate on large quantities of cannabis that surpass the legal possession limit. Obviously, we can’t be flying with 10 grams of weed on us. That’s just irresponsible behavior.

Retraining dogs is a definite possibility, but it can’t happen overnight. “Training by quantity is very difficult because of the fact that there still is an odor,” says Sgt. Grant Hignell from the Alberta Police Dog Training Center. To a dog, a small baggie of cannabis could smell the same as multiple grams.

Let’s not get carried away here, though. Cannabis is about to be legal in Canada, sure, as well as

  • California
  • Oregon
  • Denver
  • Washington
  • Alaska

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any rules, restrictions, or guidelines about traveling with it inside an airport. According to Hignell, “not all cannabis will be legal” in Canada. He predicts there will still be cases where a cannabis-sniffing dog will need to be part of a search warrant related to other issues, possibly if a second drug (an illegal one) is in possession. The trick is finding a happy medium that keeps travelers — and their privacy — safe. Like I said, airports can be stressful. We don’t need to add extra searches to the mix.

Still too early to say

At this point, police officers are well aware that legal cannabis is taking over. It’s only a matter of time before everyone jumps on board. With the laws changing so fast, it’s still too early to tell how many drug-sniffing dogs will leave the business. If and when they do, it’s common for the dogs to retire to the homes of their handlers — the courageous men and women who know them best and often have raised them since they were puppies. It’s a happy ending for everybody! We get legal cannabis, the police have less work on their plate and fewer tax dollars are wasted, and the drug-sniffing dogs get to live out their days in peace. Maybe airports be such a stressful place in the future, after all!


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