A man who was searched by Maryland police as a minor was successful in his court appeal, causing a state judge to officially rule that the smell of marijuana is not a legal justification to search someone. That’s huge, though to some it might seem like a no-brainer, given that the state decriminalized the possession of up to 10 grams of cannabis back in 2014.
"Because an officer cannot tell by the smell of marijuana alone that a person is involved in criminal activity, we hold that the odor of marijuana, by itself, does not provide reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop," wrote the presiding Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff in the decision, according to USA Today.
This news comes a week after Maryland’s medical marijuana industry hit the $1 billion mark in total sales in the 40 months since legal access to the plant went live. The state legalized medical marijuana in 2014 and had 123,376 cannabis patients registered as of December 2020.
The cops aren’t thrilled about the future implications of this new ruling. "I hope this [decision] never extends to an automobile in a traffic stop, because it would be very difficult for law enforcement to effectively do their jobs to interdict large shipments of black-market marijuana destined for our communities,” said Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis, who said he agreed with the judge’s prohibition of weed-scented personal searches in general. This decision to eliminate the smell of cannabis as a way to search people echoes one made last year by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which determined that marijuana odor cannot justify an individual’s arrest.
Unfortunately, recreational cannabis legalization seems to be on the back burner for another year in the state, where such legislation stagnated in the legislature during this session over matters of tax code and social justice measures.
The appeal that led to the judge’s decision was based on a case in which officers approached a group of individuals who were hanging out in an apartment complex and had a “strong odor of marijuana,” according to one of the cops. The officers patted them down, retrieving a 9mm handgun from one of the people who turned out to be a juvenile. The defendant argued that the police did not have legal justification to search him in the first place.
"So many interactions with law enforcement start with something as innocuous as the smell of marijuana," said the public defender in the case, Michele Hall. "This case was really the next piece. The smell of marijuana is not enough to stop an individual on the street.” "When Maryland decriminalized marijuana, this is the natural consequence of that," Hall continued. "I think to fight that is to fight the intent of the legislature." And as it turns out, the appeals court agreed.