Legal pot changes the work of some drug detection dogs

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Marijuana is now legal in much of our region. The new industry is generating billions of dollars and creating thousands of jobs, but it's also creating instability, restructuring and some layoffs for one group of workers - drug detection dogs. 

Pueblo Police Department's K9 Detective Widget is always ready for work and play. The pot-sniffing 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, has helped make millions of dollars in drug busts during her four years on the force, but now she has a new partner.

Sage is a 2-year-old golden lab. The two dogs' human handler, Detective Vince Petkosek says like Widget, Sage is trained to find heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, Ecstasy and psilocybin mushrooms, but she is not trained on marijuana.

That's important because dogs like Widget react the same way whether they ferret out legal marijuana or an illegal drug like meth. Petkosek says that means Widget's searches could be questioned.

"The courts are saying it's legal marijuana... so how can you say the dog is alerting on something illegal when she's trained on a legal product: marijuana," Petkosek says.

A case in Colorado is putting this to the test. A truck was searched after a K-9 detected drugs. A meth pipe was found and the man was convicted on drug charges. But the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the conviction saying it was an illegal search, because the dog could have been smelling marijuana. There actually wasn't any pot in the car but the K9's reliability was still questioned.That case is now before the state's supreme court and its decision could influence what happens in the rest of the country. 

As for Widget, she can't be retrained to not look for weed. So now she's working only on cases where pot is still illegal, like when minors are involved or for federal investigations. 

Petkosek says, "She has a great reputation. She is working with other agencies now out of Denver. DEA Strikeforce uses us. We're working with FBI and ATF when they're requested. So Widget is getting kind of famous. One of her biggest busts was a $1,600,000."

Widget's partner Sage maybe new but she's also already making a name for herself.

"This summer she got her first big bust. She got about a half a million in heroin on a drug interdictions stop," Petkosek says.

Today Sage is training. Four identical plywood boxes are placed randomly near the parking lot. Petkosek puts the cocaine in one of the boxes. Then he lets Sage race out of her kennel. She checks all the boxes and sits next to one. That's her alert sign and she has it right, she's sitting in front of the box with the cocaine. 

So she gets her favorite reward: playing with the tennis ball that shoots out of the box with the cocaine when Petkosek pushes a remote trigger.

He says, "it's just a big game for these dogs."

In states where marijuana is legal, local governments and agencies are making different choices about how to address what's become a confusing situation. It's early days yet. We know some dogs are getting laid off. Others are getting whole new careers like search and rescue.  

But Petkosek thinks the Pueblo Police Department made the right choice with Sage and that the $7,000 investment was totally worth it. 

He says, "When I deal with drug interdictions or cartel mules and people say 'yeah I got marijuana.' and they're smiling thinking that I'm done. I'm like hey no problem, my dog's not on it. And you just see the look in their eyes they're like oh no." So when Sage alerts that's she's found something, he knows he has probable cause to search because the dog wasn't looking for pot.

Petkosek is proud of the work both K9s do and he says it's great to have two partners who are always happy to see him.

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