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Odor of marijuana still justifies warrantless vehicle search

Users of marijuana in Maryland be warned: Although the state has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the drug, the odor of it clinging to your clothes, hair, or wafting from the interior of your car is still enough to justify a warrantless search of your vehicle.

Back in April 2014, Maryland passed a law that turned the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana from a criminal offense into a civil one. First offenses carry a $100 fine, while subsequent offenses can cost as much as $500.

The measure was likely in response to the legalization of medical marijuana within the state. However, the exact details of how growers are to get licensed and patients are to get their prescriptions haven’t been worked out.

Possession of more than 10 grams, however, moves your case back into criminal court, which could leave you facing jail time and higher fines.

One case was brought before Maryland’s Court of Appeals on behalf of three men whose vehicles were searched without a warrant after police detected the odor of marijuana during a traffic stop. It challenged the right of officers to perform the search based on the drug’s distinctive scent alone.

Attorneys for the men argued that police should be required to state why they believed the smell indicated more than 10 grams of the drug was present in the vehicle in order to justify the search.

The searches had previously been upheld in the lower courts, but Maryland’s Court of Appeals has now finalized the ruling. In the words of the court, “Decriminalization is not synonymous with legalization,” and marijuana of any amount is still illegal. The ruling was in line with that of other states who have faced similar issues in court. So far, only Massachusetts has found that marijuana odor alone does not give officers probable cause to search a vehicle.

In the rapidly-changing landscape of marijuana laws, it pays to be informed of the rules within your own state and any other to which you travel. If you do encounter a problem and are charged with drug possession, it’s wise to contact an attorney promptly.

Source: The Baltimore Sun, “Marijuana odor justifies warrantless vehicle search, Court of Appeals rules,” Justin Fenton, Jan. 21, 2017

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