The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police officers are no longer allowed to enforce exit orders on drivers whose cars smell of marijuana, based on the marijuana decriminalization law passed in 2008. While the ruling may signify a much-needed attitude adjustment regarding marijuana use in the state and the authority of the police, it may have negative implications for drivers on the road.
The Fourth Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…but upon probable cause.” Until the court’s ruling Tuesday, police officers have lawfully been able to remove suspects from their vehicles on the basis of probable cause. In these situations, it’s the word of the police officer versus the suspect’s, often inciting appeals by plaintiffs who argue that the arresting officer exploited their position on the basis of vague suspicion.
The court’s decision is a victory for these citizens because it significantly alters the way police officers interact with drivers and eliminate subjectivity from law. But it also holds marijuana and alcohol consumption to different standards. Despite some reports that suggest drunk driving is more dangerous than driving while high, both alcohol and marijuana have effects on the brain and body that impair the ability to concentrate and navigate safely. Drivers who smell like alcohol or drivers who are riding in cars that smell like alcohol are ordered out of their cars despite their age or state of intoxication. Drivers who smell like marijuana should be held to the same standard.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court made the ruling based on the law that states “possession of one ounce or less of marijuana should not be considered a serious infraction worthy of criminal sanction.” While police officers should respect this edict when accosting marijuana users, they should not be discouraged from ensuring roads are safe from high drivers. So far, balance has not been reached between these two philosophies. The court’s decision may only exacerbate confusion concerning marijuana users and their position under the law.
Chief Justice Roderick Ireland said in his written decision that “the odor of burnt marijuana alone cannot reasonably provide suspicion of criminal activity to justify an exit order.” Granted, law-abiding marijuana users should not be treated as criminals but while driving or in proximity to a vehicle, they should be held accountable for any misdeeds that could put themselves or others in jeopardy.