Tazewell K-9 unit Criss

Tazewell County Sheriff's Office K-9 unit Criss. Photo courtesy of Tazewell County Sheriff's Office Facebook page.

TAZWELL, Va. — With the looming likelihood that Gov. Ralph Northam will sign a bill to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, Tazewell County has already reassigned its two canine units and will get two new dogs.

“We are being proactive,” Sheriff Brian Hieatt said. “It (decriminalization) has a major impact on our canine program. Our dogs that we have are trained to sniff out marijuana (as well as other drugs).”

If Northam signs the law, possession of less than an ounce will be a civil penalty with a $25 fine, not a misdemeanor criminal charge as it is now. Other offenses regarding distribution and possession of larger amounts will remain criminal charges.

Hieatt said the problem is if a dog hits on marijuana and other drugs are found as well, it brings up the legality of the search at a traffic stop, for example, because possession of smaller amounts of marijuana will no longer be a crime. Instead, it’s more like paying a parking ticket.

“Do we have the right to search?” he said. “We have asked several people in Richmond and the State Police to say what is going to happen and nobody has the answer. Whether you can or can’t use the dogs has not been decided.”

That could mean illegal searches and the possibility charges won’t stand up in court if other drugs are found in the search,  he said, as well as the possible loss of any drug money confiscated.

Hieatt said the only way to be sure is to get new dogs that are trained to sniff out drugs, but not marijuana.

“The new ones will focus on other drugs like cocaine,” he said. “You can choose what you want them to be trained on.”

Hieatt said the dogs cannot be “untrained.”

“Once they are trained on specific drugs, you can’t retrain them not to sniff it out,” he said.

Replacing dogs is expensive, he said, about $15,000 each when the training of the canine officer is included since that takes six weeks.

Hieatt also said it will impact the State Police which has “hundreds” of dogs out there.

Corinne Geller, Virginia State Police public relations director, said the VSP cannot “provide comment on legislation that is still pending the Governor’s signature.”

Although Giles County Sheriff Morgan Millirons said the county has no canine units, the law will impact in other ways.

“You won’t be able to follow up on a possession charge to see what else you can find,” he said. “If there is not any criminal charge the suspect is not going to care. It’s just like issuing a parking ticket.”

Millirons said it takes away an opportunity to start investigations.

“It is also a stepping stone for other legislation for legalization,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Hieatt said it’s a setback for the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program in schools as well because “kids are taught how bad drug abuse is and now the state is decriminalizing it.”

Proponents of the law say marijuana is a drug that will not go away, it’s widely used and easy to obtain since people can grow the plant themselves. It also frees the time and resources of law enforcement to concentrate on more serious crimes.

The bill, which saw bipartisan support and passed the House 56-36 and the Senate 27-12, sets a $25 civil fine for possession of up to an ounce of the plant or products derived from it, including hashish. A half-ounce or less is now punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Records of past and future convictions will also be sealed.

Northam has said he supports the bill and is expected to sign it.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also supports the legislation and has pushed for it.

“While other states are moving to a more sensible approach to cannabis, Virginia is still moving in the wrong direction. It makes absolutely no sense,” he said last year. “Marijuana arrests are now at their highest level in at least two decades and maybe ever, meaning that even more Virginians, especially young people and people of color, are being saddled with criminal records that can drastically affect their lives. Now is the time to put a stop to this costly, unfair, and ineffective approach, and to pursue a better, smarter, fairer course.”

Del. James W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell County, voted against the bill but wants further research on its medical benefits.

“I do not support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use but would possibly support it for medical purposes,” he said. “With a growing opioid epidemic, I would much rather see someone treating a medical condition with marijuana than some other potentially addictive method. It may not be the best alternative, but I have never heard of a marijuana overdose fatality case other than marijuana combined with other substances. The coalfields of Virginia could take advantage of growing medical marijuana especially on reclaimed surface mine operations. This will be something that I will continue to research.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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