By Brandon Martin
Ever since the decriminalization of marijuana in Virginia in 2020, K-9 units have been forced to restructure how their dogs are being trained.
Now the onset of full legalization has led to some pooches pawing for new lines of work while others are being considered for retirement.
Stephen Brockway, patrol officer in charge of Martinsville’s K-9 unit, said his partner, Chase, falls into both camps.
“We’ve discussed it (retirement) and it’s a possibility that it might happen,” Brockway said. “The thing is, he is trained and certified on all of those other areas too, so chances are that if that is what it comes down to, then they will probably just say he’s not going to do narcotics and let him do the rest.”
Brockway said Chase is trained to bring attention to the presence of four narcotics: marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.
“It’s rare to find a dog that is only trained on one,” Brockway said. “The issue that we run into with the marijuana legalization is when he alerts us to odor, he does the same thing for all four. It’s no different for marijuana versus heroin. That’s our major hurdle right now, and honestly, it’s kind of hard because it’s so new.”
With few answers until the legislation actually goes into effect, Brockway said police departments are beginning to eliminate marijuana from the training.
“I know a lot of departments are going away from doing marijuana at all when they get new dogs now because you can’t take it out of them,” he said. “They are going to be trained for it forever.”
The Henry County Sheriff’s K-9 unit has similar concerns.
“We figured there was the soon-coming legalization of marijuana but that doesn’t mean the dog doesn’t smell other things,” said Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry. “It’s been decided it’s best that if they have been trained to alert on marijuana, as well as other drugs, that we not use them for that purpose.”
Lt. Col. Steve Eanes, chief deputy in Henry County, said the K-9 unit is considered fully staffed at seven dogs. Currently, the county only has five that participate in exercises.
Canines are considered either single-purpose or dual-purpose, where they perform multiple tasks such as narcotics and tracking.
Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith said there is only one dog assigned to their unit.
“Our K9 Crash is a patrol K9,” Smith said. “He is used for tracking and criminal apprehension. He is not a drug dog.”
Henry County does have one dog that is used solely for narcotics.
“We have one canine that is single-purpose as a drug dog. That one will effectively retire June 30,” Eanes said. “We have two other dogs that do drug work. We have two other dogs that are dual-purpose drug and patrol work, so we can keep those in use as patrol dogs, but we will not be able to use it for any drug work.”
Eanes said there are multiple factors that go into deciding whether to retire dogs.
“We are talking about things like health and age,” he said. “Typically, we can work canines until they are about 7 to 10 years old. Most of the time, we average around 8 to 9 years old.”
This is an age that Chase is quickly approaching.
“He turns six this year,” Brockway said. “Hopefully, he has a couple more years in him before he gets retired.”
Without new candidates, Brockway said Martinsville’s K-9 unit will be bare bones once Chase retires.
“Right now, it’s just me,” he said. “We had another one, and hopefully we will have one again down the road. We have some new people coming out of the academy now. We are trying to get them through training before we jump into that with manpower. Two (dogs) is the most that I know of that Martinsville has ever had.”
Chase handles a lot of tasks for the department, ranging from narcotics to apprehension work to article search.
While Chase is still prone to alert from the smell of marijuana, Brockway said he has found ways around the problem.
“The biggest thing I’ve found is when you try to talk to people and make them understand why he is doing what he is doing around their car. A lot of the time, some people will admit that they smoked in the car yesterday or something,” Brockway said. “It’s gotten to the point now where if that is all we find, and if I didn’t smell anything or the officer that called me didn’t smell anything, I run the dog and he alerts and that is still all we find (marijuana) then it is what it is. It’s not like we are hunting people down for it.”