The airport can be a stressful place. The long lines, strict TSA guidelines, the intimidating drug-sniffing dogs, and the act of triple checking all your pockets to make sure you didn’t accidentally bring some marijuana 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 marijuana we’re talking about? Nothing illegal to see here, boys. Keep moving. With legal marijuana taking over the United States and Canada, are drug-sniffing dogs out of a job? Let’s explore this a little further.

Drug-Sniffing Dogs

What Drugs Can Dogs Smell?

Firstly, the references to drugs are pretty vague. You wouldn’t put marijuana and heroin in the same drug category even though it’s all relative to a dog. According to canine website Cuteness, drug-sniffing dogs are trained to put up on seven variations

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Heroin
  • Opiates
  • Ecstasy
  • LSD


Based on this list, we can still expect to see drug-sniffing dogs in the line of police work, except when it comes to marijuana 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 all 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 marijuana? And is it legal to do so?

Messages, Tips, and Lessons from Law Enforcement

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, referring to marijuana. Now, he predicts the 14 police dogs on his force will be out of a job. The Edmonton police canine units conduct roughly 40 drug searches each year, but as of 2018 (the year marijuana 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 marijuana? To a dog, the drugs are all the same. But to a police officer, comparing legal marijuana 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 live their privacy too much to do the same for legal marijuana.

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 of 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!

Drug-Sniffing Dogs

Marijuana Laws and Legality Policies

So, now let’s see what previous cities have done, like Colorado, for example, where marijuana 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 large quantities of marijuana that surpass the legal possession limit. Obviously, we can’t be flying with 10 grams of marijuana 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 marijuana could smell the same as multiple grams.

Let’s not get carried away here, though. Just because marijuana is legal in Canada and the following US states

  1. Alaska
  2. Arizona
  3. California
  4. Colorado
  5. Illinois
  6. Maine
  7. Massachusetts
  8. Michigan
  9. Nevada
  10. Oregon
  11. Vermont
  12. Washington
Drug-Sniffing Dogs

Airport Rules and Restrictions

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 marijuana will be legal” in Canada. He predicts there will still be cases where drug-sniffing dogs 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 safe. As I said, airports can be stressful. We don’t need to add extra searches to the mix.

There are one of two options, here. One, find a place for the dogs to continue working. Two, let them retire and live a life of leisure. Now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? If humans love retirement, so can dogs. Maybe we’ll start seeing former drug-sniffing dogs in pounds and rescue centers ready to be adopted by a loving family. I mean, that kind of sounds like heaven.

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 have often 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 the drug-sniffing dogs get to live out their days in peace. Turns out, airports might not be such a stressful place in the future after all.

  1. Christian Thomas says:

    The list of states that have legalized Is incomplete. We’re up to 11. Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

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