Can police search your car in Colorado for marijuana odor?

Marijuana has slowly become decriminalized at the state level in many places across the country. Colorado is one of them. The cannabis industry is booming there. At first, marijuana was legal there for medicinal use only. Now it’s legal for recreational use within the state. That shift has also led to some changes in the way law enforcement deals with marijuana, including during traffic stops.

Marijuana and traffic stops

Before marijuana was legal at the state level in Colorado, the smell of the substance was considered probable cause for searching a vehicle during a traffic stop. This was viewed as reasonable given that even possessing marijuana was illegal at the time. Even when medical marijuana became legal, nothing changed. But once recreational use became legal, the circumstances changed around searches and seizures during traffic stops within the state.

Under the Fourth Amendment, Americans are protected from unreasonable search and seizure. This is foundational for the way criminal regulations work in this country. Once recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado, cases came before the state Supreme Court, questioning what constituted probable cause for a search. The court held that since anyone over 21 can legally possess marijuana, the smell of it alone isn’t sufficient to search someone’s vehicle.

However, the smell of marijuana can provide context. When combined with other factors, it can be a part of the reason for a search. Other states have approached the issue differently. It’s wise to find out about how a particular jurisdiction approaches marijuana before using it there. Since this is all regulated at the state level, there can be differences between California, Arizona, Vermont, and so on.