Marijuana Legalization Has Unforeseen Cost: K-9s

K-9 Officer Steven Wendruff and K-9 Lynk and K-9 Officer Marc Micciulla and K-9 Storm. (Photo courtesy Manchester Township Police Department)
K-9 Officer Steven Wendruff and K-9 Lynk and K-9 Officer Marc Micciulla and K-9 Storm. (Photo courtesy Manchester Township Police Department)

MANCHESTER – While lawmakers in Trenton wrangle with questions over whether legalized recreational marijuana should be put on the November ballot, or legislated into existence, many local governments are exercising skepticism over any potential financial windfall and asking – rhetorically – who is going to pay for the green stuff?

The dogs are. In states where recreational marijuana has been legalized, local news organizations have reported that drug-sniffing K-9s have been forced into retirement. Once a dog is trained to sniff out marijuana, it can’t be untrained. The K-9 can only indicate it found drugs, not which drug.

The issue is not just local; it reached the November pages of The New York Times. That article highlighted some of the challenges facing agencies across the nation. Illinois, for example, hasn’t legalized weed yet, but would need to figure out what to do with the state’s 275 narcotics-sniffing dogs. In other states, where marijuana is still illegal, are dropping marijuana sniffing from new K-9 training.

Sheriff Michael Mastronardy told The Manchester Times that dogs can cost $5,000 to $8,000 just to purchase. The training costs depend on what one wants to the dog to do; while his office has multipurpose sniffing dogs, they can be specially trained to detect narcotics, explosives, even chemicals involved in arson. Training can last 12-14 weeks per dog. His department has four drug-sniffing dogs. There are 21 narcotics-sniffing K-9s in Ocean County; 19 are trained to sniff for marijuana. The other two, newer dogs, were not trained to smell weed.

Officers were heading down to Virginia the weekend of March 2 to purchase a K-9 trained in sniffing out explosives. There were only two available. And the issue comes down to supply and demand: there aren’t exactly an abundance of K-9s waiting to be purchased, and should departments across New Jersey suddenly find themselves with dogs they can no longer use, there will be a rush on finding replacements, driving up the costs.

K-9 Lynk. (Photo courtesy Manchester Township Police Department)
K-9 Lynk. (Photo courtesy Manchester Township Police Department)

But, Mastronardy said, authorities will still have to keep at least one marijuana sniffing dog and a human partner on the payroll. Even when recreational marijuana is legalized, it won’t be legal to have it in prisons or schools, and it still won’t be legal to grow it privately or possess it in large quantities.

He and Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden testified in Trenton about those costs. It was his impression that such costs didn’t register with the state Assemblymen and Senators when pondering the possible financial rewards of marijuana legalization.

But whatever the costs, it may be the local taxpayers who will ultimately foot the bill.

Manchester Councilman Craig Wallis wants a resolution crafted to demand that, should recreational marijuana be legalized, that Trenton carries the burden that legalization will impose. He admitted a resolution would go exactly nowhere. Still, he wants this message sent to state lawmakers: pay up.

He’s tired of Trenton piling on the rules but closing its coffers, forcing more and more costs to be carried by municipalities.

Marijuana hasn’t been addressed by township officials through ordinances or resolutions at this point. Whereas other municipalities have proactively banned the sale of recreational pot within their limits, Manchester has adopted a wait-and-see approach.

“We have not addressed the marijuana issue yet because we do not know what the final legislation will be. Once the State enacts something, I suspect we will do the same,” Manchester Mayor Kenneth T. Palmer said in an email to The Manchester Times.

Manchester also has two K-9 officers, Storm, who joined the department in January 2015 and cost $6,500; and Lynk, who was welcomed in August 2015 and cost $7,000. Both are German shepherds and were purchased with money from Manchester’s Law Enforcement Trust Account, funded by seized and forfeited assets. Their anticipated service life is more than eight years.

The department broke down the costs for the K-9s from 2015-18: training and memberships, $6,000; vehicle fit-ups, $24,225; supplies, $9,300; kennels/fencing/crates, $8,775; boarding/grooming/food/supplements, $11,400; operations (narcotics, asset, currency seizure), $75,000-$150,000.

Both are trained to sniff out marijuana, among other drugs. Both would likely have to be retired.

K-9 Storm. (Photo courtesy Manchester Township Police Department)
K-9 Storm. (Photo courtesy Manchester Township Police Department)

“If marijuana is legalized, our narcotic canines will be rendered useless. They cannot be retrained and the investment we made into the canines (including cost of the dogs, time our officers trained, equipment, etc…) will be lost,” Palmer wrote. “Craig would like for the state to reimburse for these expenses from the additional revenues. (Although he knows that will not happen.)”

And it’s not just the loss and needed replacement of the two K-9 officers. While there are scientific means for measuring alcohol intoxication, there is no such objective testing for marijuana.

“I am against legalizing it and for it to be sold in town. Among my complaints, is the inability to accurately test whether someone is under the influence of marijuana during a traffic stop. With alcohol, the AlcoTest is a scientific means of determining the levels of alcohol in someone’s bloodstream while they are driving. Objective tests do not exist for marijuana,” Palmer wrote. “Currently, if someone is suspected of being under the influence of marijuana or some other substance, a specially trained officer needs to be called in to complete an evaluation. It would be extremely costly to train officers to complete this evaluation.”

Mastronardy added that reports from Colorado are indicating an increase in the underground marijuana market. Medical marijuana is the only “medicine” taxed in New Jersey. The proposed numbers on recreational marijuana tax has been anywhere from 12 to 25 percent, and a possible additional 2 percent for municipalities to collect should they allow it to be sold within their borders. Why would someone pay more than $300 for an ounce when they can purchase it much cheaper, untaxed, from a home grower?

Negotiations to bring legal recreational marijuana to the Garden State continue. Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-39) and Senator Ronald Rice (D-28) – both against legalization – want New Jersey voters to decide. However, many Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy, who banked on weed being legal by now, want a bill passed and signed.

The Manchester Times also reached out to state Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-22), the lead sponsor of the bill to legalize recreational marijuana, S2703, to ask him his thoughts on how legalization will impact municipalities. He was not available for comment.