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Virginia Senate Passes Legislation Preventing Cops From Searching Cars Based On Cannabis Smell


While cannabis legalization has not yet been considered during Virginia’s Special Legislative Session, two notable bills introduced passed the Senate last week: Senate Bill 5049, which prevents police officers from searching a person or their vehicle due to cannabis smell, and Senate Bill 5013 which would allow Virginians to pay their $25 ticket for possessing a decriminalized amount of cannabis without having to go to court.

Police frequently use the smell of cannabis—or falsely claim they smell cannabis—in order to stop someone and search them, their car, or their property. Law enforcement have frequently pushed back against attempts to limit their ability to use cannabis smell for searches and view it as a crucial investigative tool. 

“Marijuana is still the number one reason the police are using to sidestep the Fourth Amendment and get into people’s car, pocket or home,” former police commander and current Executive Director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) Neill Franklin told me back in 2019. “Constitutionally, it’s wrong.”

The ACLU, whose recent report showed that Black Virginians are 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Virginians, support SB 5049, and recently tweeted, “Once police pull you over, they can use the smell of marijuana as a pretext to search your car. Sadly, Black Virginians know this problem all too well.”

Along with preventing police from using cannabis smell to search, SB 5049 also makes possession of cannabis in a vehicle a secondary offense rather than a primary offense (a secondary offense can only be issued if there is an additional, justifiable reason for the stop) and prevent police from seizing property based on cannabis smell. 

SB 5013, which was also approved by the Virginia Senate last week, builds on Virginia’s recent decriminalization of cannabis of up to one ounce, by allowing Virginians given a civil citation to pay the $25 ticket without going to court. 

These are the first of what cannabis reformers hope are a number of bills approved during Virginia’s Special Legislative Session, which began on August 18 and does not have an announced ending date. Along with legalization, the Legislature will be considering Senate Bill 5043 which would allow Virginians to expunge their records for misdemeanor cannabis possession. And since The Outlaw Report discussed the Special Legislative Session last week, is House Bill 5141, introduced by Delegate Jennifer Carroll, which would legalize cannabis in Virginia. Carroll is also running for governor of Virginia. Ralph Northam, who ran on 2017 on racial equity and cannabis reform but has persistently hedged on legalization.

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