Southwest Virginia law enforcement makes switch to K9s not imprinted on marijuana amid passing of new legislation

Virginia Politics

(WJHL) — With Gov. Ralph Northam approving new legislation regarding the legalization of marijuana, law enforcement across the state is having to adjust ahead of the law going into effect on July 1.

Not only will they be changing how they deal with marijuana possession, but the entire team is impacted, including K9 units within the department.

K9s trained to imprint on marijuana will no longer be used in Virginia. Due to this change, a number of departments in our region and across the state have started making adjustments such as relocating dogs and purchasing new dogs that are not imprinted on marijuana.

Some departments in our region have chosen to keep their dogs local, moving them just across the state line into Tennessee. Smyth County Sheriff Chip Shuler said they relocated their K9 to Sullivan County. Most recently, Scott County relocated its K9 to Hawkins County.

Scott County Sheriff Jeff Edds said it’s sad to see their K9 go, but at least he isn’t going far. “We’re glad he’ll be close by, we can ask about how he’s doing. It’s just a good relationship. It was good for us and good for them also,” said Edds.

Edds said he realized about two months ago they needed to make changes when it came to their K9 unit and that’s when they started reaching out to nearby agencies in Tennessee.

With a month, he said they hope to have two new dogs that will not imprint on marijuana. Dogs that are trained to detect drugs other than marijuana are now being used in a number of Southwest Virginia departments.

Tazewell County Chief Deputy Harold Heatley said they saw this coming and actually made the change last year and sold their dogs to outside agencies so they could purchase new ones.

Washington County, Virginia also has a new K9 named Kala who came from Poland and has been with the department for about six months.

While saying goodbye to a dog is hard, each new K9 comes with a lot of commitment both physically and financially.

“Training and purchasing a dog, you’re talking about $20,000 to $25,000. So we were able to sell our dogs, secure some additional funds from donors in our community and our prosecutor’s office through their asset forfeiture, and we were able to purchase two new dogs,” said Heatley said.

Washington County, Virginia Deputy Sheriff Jerry Farley is a K9 handler who knows the expenses and training firsthand.

“We spend a lot of money on the dog, not only buying and certifying the dog but food and vet bills and all of that stuff. You attend a 13-week school, that’s just a basic academy to get you certified with a green dog, and every month after that, we have to get at least 20 hours,” said Farley.

For departments that haven’t already or are currently in the process of making adjustments to their K9 units amid the new legislation, Heatley said now is the time as marijuana legalization becomes more common across the United States.

“It’s going to be harder and harder for you to find locations where you can send those dogs so I think if they haven’t already started that process, they probably should get working on that,” said Heatley.

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