For Illinois Law Enforcement, New Marijuana Law Means New Additions To The Team

Jul 24, 2019

Sgt. Nick Cunningham of the Winnebago County Sheriff's Office Canine Unit with Cisco, one of his new recruits.
Credit Guy Stephens

The law allowing recreational marijuana in Illinois takes effect next year, and those in enforcement are getting ready. This includes a special category of police. Sergeant Nick Cunningham leads the Canine Unit in the Winnebago County Sheriff's Office. Guy Stephens spoke with Cunningham recently. Guy began by asking what effect the new law will have on his work.

NC: One of the major impacts for the Canine Unit is that all the patrol dogs that we currently have are trained to locate marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. Once marijuana is legalized, as far as any searches that we would do -- on the street, on vehicles -- we will not be able to use those patrol dogs. So in order to compensate for that we've just purchased two brand new dogs, two labs, that are going to be starting training next week. And those dogs will be training for narcotics, but they will only be trained for cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Myself and every other trainer in the nation will tell you that we cannot retrain those dogs that we already have. If they've already been trained on marijuana, it's not something that we can reliably take out of them.

GS: How many dogs are affected?

NC: It's a major impact for the canine community. There's approximately 420 narcotics dogs in Illinois right now. All of those dogs, up until just very recently, were trained on marijuana. So you've got 420 dogs that can't be retrained. Now, those dogs are still good for a lot of other things. I have five patrol dogs now that are trained on marijuana, and those dogs will still be in service. There's a lot of other things I can do with those dogs, because they're multi-purpose dogs. So everything else that they do is still fine. And even the narcotics searches they're doing, we would still use those dogs because they're searching schools and the jail. Those dogs are used on search warrants that we go on. Those are all areas where you can use that dog. The only impact it has is searches that we do on the street, and vehicles. That's the only impact it is. So what we've done is we've just purchased these two new labs that we're going to train up, and they'll be doubled up in a car with another dog. So I've got one handler that's working two different dogs.

GS: How long does it take to train a dog to be at a point where you can comfortably go out there and feel like you're going to have someone who's responsive and accurate?

NC: There's minimum standards that are set by the state training board, which is four weeks. I think most of us trainers would say it's going to take six to eight weeks to train a dog. That's what I want to get these dogs now. So we have more than enough time to train these dogs, get them ready before the first of the year. But yeah, two months is plenty of time to get a dog trained up.

GS: How often are these new dogs likely to be used?

NC: These new dogs will probably be deployed at least six times a day at a minimum. And I can tell you that this year already, the unit has brought in over $300,000 in seizure money, just with the drug dogs that we have now.

GS: Specifically, what changes will officers make as they go out, even if there's no protocol for how to deal with that, or are you still working that out as you go?

NC: That we're still working out. And there's case law in other states where it is legalized. And we will be taking direction from the State's Attorney's Office on how to handle those kind of cases.

GS: Do you have some sense of things that you're going to have to anticipate, or try to anticipate, once this takes effect?

NC: No. I've been doing this for 28 years. This is just another law that changed, to me. I've dealt with that every year, the whole time. So there's always going to be changes, there's always going to be ways that we have to change what we're doing to accommodate the laws of the land. This is just one more.