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Can the police really smell cannabis in your car?

Can the police really smell cannabis in your car?

Although marijuana, especially for medical purposes, has been legalized in many countries, pot users still worry about the cops. Buying weed from legal dispensaries might be allowed, but what about driving back home with your stash of marijuana? Is that legal too? Cannabis usually comes with a strong distinctive odor. There are numerous instances where the pungent cannabis smell had created an awkward situation for marijuana users. Given that, it is quite natural to wonder if the police can smell cannabis in your car. Even when a police officer can detect cannabis smell in your car, can they legally search your car? We want our marijuana consumers to be safe and avoid any cop trouble. That is why this post takes up this topic for discussion. So, can the police smell cannabis in your car? How to avoid it? Keep reading this article to clear your doubts.

Cannabis smell – why it is an issue?

The word ‘cannabis’ is derived from the Hebrew word ‘kneh-bosm’ which means ‘aromatic reed’. The presence of around 1,000 terpenes and terpenoids in the cannabis buds produces a very distinctive odor. People either love or hate cannabis smell. Even when they are not smoked or vaped, recently procured dried buds releases a strong earthy, musky and skunky scent. You can also smell it on a person who just finished smoking.

Now, this might be an issue. Not only the smell makes some non-users uncomfortable, it can invite troubles from the law enforcement agencies where cannabis is still illegal. There has been a long tradition of sniff and search followed by law enforcement agencies across the world. This means, if an officer of the law can smell marijuana in your car, they can immediately search your car for the contraband without producing a warrant. Alex Kreit, a cannabis laws expert and a researcher at the Ohio State University Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, says ‘There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that at least some officers say they smell it when they don’t.’

According to the legal conventions, detection of pot ‘in plain smell’ is enough to justify such warrantless searches. These searches are not so uncommon, especially in the car stops. The nose knows it all. Even if you haven’t smoked or vaped marijuana inside your car for a long time, the odor emanating from the unused dried buds can give you away. Typically, the more potent a strain is, the stronger is the odor. So, cannabis smell can be a real problem for you.

Can the police really detect cannabis smell by sniffing inside your car?

Normally, human noses are very much capable of identifying cannabis by their smell. However, a latest scientific study published in the March 2020 issue of Science & Justice journal challenges this belief. The researchers involved in the study experimented with different marijuana packagings and studied the capability of the human nose to sniff them out. For their experiments, the researchers put various marijuana strains with different terpene profiles in an open bowl and in ‘four different packing methods based on real-life examples such as; Ziploc bags, thin plastic produce bags, pop-top canisters, and a vacuum-sealed heavy plastic bag’.

The open bowl and the marijuana-filled packages were left for an hour to let the smell accumulate. Then blindfolded participants were asked to smell and detect the presence of marijuana. The results of this study have suggested that marijuana packed in the common zip lock sandwich bags, plastic produce bags and of course the open bowl can be easily detected by the nose. But, the vacuum-sealed heavy plastic bags can cheat the human nose. Many cannabis dispensaries are now offering their customers double vacuum sealed, completely smell-proof plastic bags that can be brought back and reused to purchase pot.

Sniff and search – the practice is fast-changing

In the US, even in the states where medical marijuana is legalized, warrantless vehicle searches on the basis of ‘in plain smell’ rule are quite common. Previously, the courts have also ruled those searches legal. However, the situation is fast changing. Motorists are now increasingly challenging and resisting these searches. More and more courts are also ruling against the sniff and search practices of law enforcement agencies. Kyle Clark, an officer in charge of the drug impairment recognition training programs at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, has recently said, “It’s becoming more difficult to say, ‘I smell marijuana, I can search the car.’ It’s not always an automatic thing”. Last year, a Pennsylvania court has deemed such a search illegal and suppressed the evidence recovered from that search.

The state Supreme Courts of Vermont, Colorado, Massachusetts, Leigh Country have given many rulings which say that the mere smell of marijuana can no longer be considered a probable cause for a warrantless search operation. Not only the courts, the police officers are also becoming aware of the changing scene and refraining from sniff and search vehicles for cannabis. ‘It’s a major development, and it’s going to provide a layer of protection that we lost sometime in the past’, says Keith Stroup, legal director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Although the situation is fast evolving, courts and law enforcement agencies in many states still allow these searches. If a police officer stops your car and orders a search based on the cannabis smell, you can always push back citing your Fourth Amendment rights and the fact that it is legal to possess marijuana in your state. However, there is no harm in taking a few precautions.

Never transport anything more than the quantity allowed by the state laws and always carry the legal documents required to justify the possession of cannabis, namely the medical marijuana card or doctor’s recommendation certificate. After you buy your weed supply, put it in a doubly vacuum sealed heavy-duty plastic bag to prevent the smell from coming out. If you are being extra cautious, putting the packed marijuana in a lockbox inside the trunk sounds like a good idea.

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