Changes in marijuana laws lead to retirement of six Okaloosa County S.O. K9s

CRESTVIEW — The state's legalization of certain hemp products has led to the need to replace six marijuana-detecting K9s at the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office.

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That's according to retiring Deputy County Administrator of Operations Greg Kisela, whose last work day is Friday. At Tuesday's County Commission meeting, he made reference to Florida's new hemp law that took effect in July.

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The law “basically has taken the existing K9 dogs … and for lack of a better word, has made them obsolete,” Kisela said.

He added that Sheriff's Office authorities now are “not able to, from a due process (standpoint), put those dogs on a drug issue where that particular product may be legal and then all of a sudden they've got an issue that would kick out a particular conviction.”

After much discussion, the commission unanimously approved spending $72,000 in local option half-cent sales tax money to purchase six replacement K9s.

The new dogs will not be trained to detect any kind of hemp/marijuana product, Kisela and Sheriff's Office Capt. David Allen told the board.

The dogs that will be replaced will be retired to their handlers, Allen said.

“This is an issue that all agencies are having to deal with,” Commissioner Graham Fountain, a former law-enforcement officer, said about the need to replace pot-detecting pooches.

Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel couldn't resist joking, “I guess you can't teach old dogs new tricks.”

All kidding aside, Fountain pointed out that the six K9s that will retire are trained to sniff out narcotics other than marijuana, such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

The Sheriff's Office currently has a total of nine K9s, said spokeswoman Michele Nicholson.

Other than the agency's explosives-detecting K9 that works at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, each of the dogs can make apprehensions and sniff out narcotics.

The airport dog will continue its duties, the S.O.'s school resource officer pooch will keep working at local schools and a third K9 that will remain on the force will focus on tracking and apprehensions, Nicholson said. She said the new K9s probably will start working around the start of the new year.

While a Sheriff's Office tradition has retiring K9s remain with their handlers, “those dogs want to work,” Nicholson said. “They don't want to be retired. When (their handlers) get dressed to go to work, they're like, 'What's up? Why aren't I going with you?'”

Three years ago, 71 percent of Florida's voters approved an amendment that expanded the use of medical marijuana.

A potential constitutional amendment that might make it on the November 2020 ballot would, with enough voter approval, make recreational marijuana legal in the Sunshine State.

In other business Tuesday, the commission:

*Heard Triumph Gulf Coast Board Chairman Don Gaetz report that the $64.1 million Triumph grant award for the southwest Crestview bypass project is the largest monetary contribution of any kind ever given to the county.

*Chose Trey Goodwin and Carolyn Ketchel as the commission's chairman and vice chairman, respectively, for calendar year 2020.