Study shows that cannabis smell alone should not warrant searches

Published Mar 16, 2020 12:00 p.m. ET
iStock / chriss_ns

Cannabis enthusiasts don’t deny that the flower emits an incredibly distinct smell, and most assume that it’s impossible to ignore, which is why it’s so common to hear about instances of search and seizure that were triggered by the presence of a pungent scent, but the research shows that it’s really not that easy to smell weed.

Regardless of the countless, well-documented instances of cannabis smell being used as a protection for police who are conducting questionable searches of homes and vehicles. Chances are pretty good that the cops can’t smell your weed at all, and that their belief of its presence is more than enough to induce a sort of placebo effect.

Now, that might help to explain why minorities are so heavily targeted and charged with cannabis-related crimes, but it also calls into question the morality behind laws that allow such intrusive levels of action.

So, can the police really smell weed in your home or vehicle?

It turns out that it depends mostly on the situation at hand. Was the flower just freshly smoked? Or are you storing it in proper packaging during transport? According to one study which was published in March’s issue of Science and Justice, researchers found that it is impossible to smell cannabis that has been packed away in double-layered vacuum proof bags.

The study, which used various types of containers and packing for their experiment also concluded that while the smell of weed was easily detectable if it is stored in a basic Ziploc baggie, sturdier options such as resealable mason jars, and other glass or plastic storage containers, reduced the scent significantly if not entirely. This information is being hailed as the golden ticket to achieving change to the current “In Plain Smell” laws that are in effect right across the United States.

What is the ‘In Plain Smell’ law?

‘In Plain Smell’, laws allow law enforcement agencies to trigger a search and seizure without any cause other than claiming that they can personally smell cannabis.  Though the United States is most famous for its enforcement of such laws, many regions all over the world have similar legislation in place, including those with federal marijuana legalization.

These kinds of searches are most common during vehicle stops, but they have also been used to search people's private homes and businesses after having an officer show up unannounced, which leaves even further room for discrimination. With all of this information available and now proven by professionals, experts and advocates globally are hoping to get rid of these draconian laws forever.


A pattern of inefficiency

According to one researcher who is working out of the Ohio State University Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, it’s not a secret that police officers who use the ‘In Plain Smell’ law most often uncover substances that have absolutely nothing to do with cannabis. This compounded with the legal protections of an officer who deems any random person to be of interest, results in many cases of blatant discrimination.

One example of this would be if a police officer were to see a driver who is abiding by all laws, doing absolutely nothing illegal, and they chose to follow that driver rather than seeking out individuals who are actually doing illegal deeds. In the US, an officer can legally tail you until you do something that does merit getting pulled over, be it a nervous glance, or driving only a mile over the legal speed limit.

From there, once they have the suspect pulled to the side of the road, all an officer has to do is claim that they can smell weed, and the driver loses any legal rights to stop them. Statistically, there is evidence to show that the ‘In Plain Smell’ law in the US is used to uncover either nothing at all, which interrupts an individual's life for no reason or to find other harder drugs that have no relation at all to cannabis.

Challenging searches for cannabis-based on smell in court

This latest cannabis news is changing the game, as people from all over have challenged similar situations in court. Some have asked that labs take samples of the air surrounding a confiscated package, and others have opted to dispute the legality of the search based on the fact that no cannabis was ever found, but this new research will provide all of those who are impacted, some new convincing ammunition to use in court against injustice.

It is no longer just an opinion because it’s being proven time and time again that these unjust laws do much more harm than they do good. It’s time to stand up and have your voice heard because if the people don’t fight for their rights, it’s going to take a whole lot longer to make this necessary change to legislation which will ultimately influence the way that police officers handle themselves in these kinds of situations.

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