It was clear from the moment that Massachusetts decriminalized the ownership of small amounts of pot, that it would create a problem for the police. Specifically, it would create a problem for their ability to continue to make the 6.5% of arrests nationwide, as of 2010, that related to pot specifically [source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports].
Let’s say that you’re a police officer, and you see a “gang member” or other darn no-goodnik driving down the block like they own the place, and maybe, as they’re driving, expressing a less than full appreciation of the patriotic protection you are providing to the community. If you pull them over, and claim to smell pot, then, whether or not there is actually pot in the car, the officer’s “good faith” belief that there might have been pot, renders a search of the car valid and allows into evidence the fruits of any such search.
Now, reports the Globe, that’s no longer true in Massachusetts. The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled unanimously that, as it is no longer actually criminal to possess small amounts of pot, police can no longer use the smell of burning or unburned marijuana to justify a warrantless stop and search of a car. The Justices explicitly rejected the argument that it was still a valid pretext for a stop because pot remains illegal under federal law.
In this instance, the SJC has substantially strengthened the liberties of everyone, including non-pot-smokers like myself. This was a case where the War on Drugs had effectively allowed an officer’s mere word (sometimes supplemented by the highly questionable evidence of an alerting dog) to open up anybody’s car contents to a warrantless search.
It is a sign that as a society we are moving beyond that kind of madness, that we can recognize that there are better things for the police to be doing, and that therefore fewer drivers will be stopped based on a hunch or on prejudice. In turn, this means that fewer young people, especially people of color, will be shunted into the criminal justice system based on violations of the Fourth Amendment. Last, we can hope, there will also be an increase in people driving rather more slowly, and therefore possibly more safely, than average.