In States With Legal Weed, Warrantless Police Searches Are Decreasing

Is the smell of weed reason enough for police to search your car? No. And the numbers prove it.

With weed legalization on the rise, the inclusion of law enforcement officials is crucial to legal herb’s overall success.

"I love the fact that local law enforcement is ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us in defense of that regulatory framework," Hezekiah Allen told KINDLAND in regard to product-transportation provisions included in the November 2016 recreational-use initiative, Proposition 64.

Allen is the executive director of the California Growers Association, a group he helped found in order to give a voice to the Golden State’s weed farmers as California lawmakers shape the regulations and laws that will govern the recreational market.

Surely, though, police should be included in any legal weed processes, as the cops are undoubtedly impacted by the policy changes. Previously, the country’s most on-the-ground law enforcement officers devoted significant resources to cannabis-related situations.

US Marshals / Flickr

For example, if a cop smelled ganja in your car during a routine traffic stop, it would be considered reasonable grounds for them to conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle. Such searches have resulted in thousands of drug arrests and proved to be an effective means of furthering the drug war. Warrantless searches have contributed immensely to racial disparity in drug crimes, with black and hispanic people getting convicted more often than white, resulting in life-ruining criminal charges and indefensible fatalities. 

Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who was acquitted of the controversial killing of Phillip Castillo just last week, searched Castillo’s car under the pretense of smelling weed before fatally shooting the man. Yanez even used this as part of his defense in court, as if a car that smells of cannabis could be driven exclusively by a dangerous person.

But as weed is legalized, the question of whether or not simply smelling it in one’s car is enough to warrant a police search of the vehicle, becomes more relevant. 

According to a survey conducted by the Stanford Open Policing Project, warrantless searches conducted by highway patrol officers in Colorado and Washington have dropped by half since the two states legalized weed in 2012. To glean this information, the Open Policing Project analyzed more than 100 million records of stop and search data with source information coming from 31 states. 

“Searches where you don’t find something are really negative towards a community," Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice, said to NBC News

"[Having] a police officer search your car is really like, 'Why are they doing this to me?' And you get more pissed off. If you’re trying to do relationship building, it’s not a good thing to do a lot of searches," McDevitt said. 

In Washington and Colorado, both states experienced a more than 50 percent decrease in searches per the survey's findings. Though in 12 of the states from which the Stanford group analyzed data, no legalization legislation was passed, or on the books, during the examination period, and no decrease in warrantless searches was evident.

Though the analysis did find that minority drivers are still disproportionately stopped, searched, and ticketed.

Image via Stanford Open Policing Project

“For example, when pulled over for speeding, black drivers are 20 percent more likely to get a ticket (rather than a warning) than white drivers, and Hispanic drivers are 30 percent more likely to be ticketed than white drivers,” the Stanford researchers wrote.

Police have a hard job. And keeping marijuana illegal only increases the difficulty and likelihood of danger involved in police work. This is something cops and regular folks can agree on. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of the nation’s police officers favor relaxed marijuana laws––a number congruent with public opinion.