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McHenry County K-9 officers consider new marijuana training, but police leery

K-9 officers consider new marijuana training; police leery of re-education

Woodstock K-9 officer Sharon Freund poses for a photo with the department’s K-9, Blue, on Friday outside the Woodstock Police Department.
Woodstock K-9 officer Sharon Freund poses for a photo with the department’s K-9, Blue, on Friday outside the Woodstock Police Department.

To stay ahead of any new realities the legalization of recreational marijuana may create for local law enforcement, some certified K-9 trainers are exploring new marijuana detection education for untrained dogs.

However, some local units are skeptical that such techniques can be retaught to a trained and certified K-9.

Recreational marijuana legalization was a staple of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s campaign. But last year, some Illinois officers said that because of the improbability of retraining, the legalization of marijuana may require police dogs to be euthanized, an option that was dismissed by local law enforcement officials.

Grayslake-based TOPS Kennel handles training and certification for all K-9 units in McHenry County, including the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office and Crystal Lake, McHenry and Woodstock police departments. Annual recertification for narcotics detection – which includes marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine – is required by the state.

Paul Pomazal, K-9 training director with TOPS Kennel, said all dogs at the facility are dual purpose-trained, meaning they are trained both as a patrol dog and to provide narcotics detection, tracking and other services.

The ideal age to begin training is about 18 months old, and courses take about eight to 10 weeks, Pomazal said.

He said there have not been any significant changes to training standards for K-9s in states such as Colorado and California, which already have decriminalized marijuana.

“It just hasn’t been challenged at this point,” Pomazal said. “Departments don’t seem to have a big issue with it.”

However, Pomazal said TOPS Kennel would be looking at new training for police dogs during a course this spring.

For narcotics detection, Pomazal said, trainers want dogs to have an aggressive response when sniffing for drugs. But instead of training for that sort of response for marijuana, Pomazal said they might do a nonaggressive response that still could be identifiable as probable cause for a search.

“Alerts are natural behaviors [for dogs], but final responses are trained, and we can reform those,” Pomazal said. “It might be helpful as far as the courts are concerned for dogs to have a unique final response to different odors.”

One way Pomazal said this could be achieved is by training for the same nonaggressive response used in article searches as those used for marijuana detection.

Woodstock K-9 officer Sharon Freund – who started working with the department’s K-9, Blue, in 2015 – said this education may be offered to untrained dogs, but it would be unlikely that trained and certified K-9s could be retrained with this behavior.

Should marijuana be decriminalized, Freund said, the process of narcotics detection will be touch and feel for a while without concrete policies in place.

“It’s going to be, more or less, trial and error,” Freund said. “There’s not enough case law to determine what we’re going to do.”

Woodstock Police Chief John Lieb said regardless of what may be passed by the Illinois Legislature regarding marijuana decriminalization, the department will adapt.

Decriminalization of marijuana likely will be a thoroughly debated topic this legislative session. One incarnation of marijuana legalization already was introduced on the House floor in January.

Democratic Rep. Carol Ammons filed House Bill 902, which decriminalizes a number of marijuana-related acts for those age 21 or older, such as possessing or consuming marijuana and marijuana accessories, possessing and growing up to 24 mature marijuana plants and possessing up to 224 grams of marijuana. The bill currently sits in the House’s Rules Committee.

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