Pretext Stops Related to the Smell of Marijuana May Soon Be a Thing of the Past

Sep 30, 2020

The Virginia Senate is about to consider a bill that could dramatically reduce the number of people who are stopped and searched by police officers.

The smell of marijuana is often used by police officers as a pretext to stop people and ask to search their car or their backpack or their pockets. Advocates say it predominantly targets Black people, and that could come to an end if Delegate Patrick Hope is successful. The Arlington Democrat has a bill that’s already passed the House and is now being considered in the Senate.

It moves the smell of marijuana from a primary offense to a secondary offense. That means police could not stop someone because they smelled marijuana. It also makes a secondary offense out of something dangling from a rearview mirror or a license plate that’s not illuminated.

Credit U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

“I’ve been pulled over in my 30 year driving career in my life, and I know that when I get pulled over by law enforcement I myself get very anxious," Hope says. "But I’ve never been pulled over for any of these offenses, any of these minor offenses.” 

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano says removing the smell of marijuana as a primary offense would be a major step forward for policing reform in Virginia. 

“Marijuana, which this bill addresses, is a great example where the numbers show that people of color are stopped more often than others, even in so-called liberal or progressive jurisdictions," he explains. "That just goes to show how deep this problem runs.”

A similar bill has already passed the Senate during the special session, so one or both of these bills are probably headed to the governor’s desk in the next few weeks.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.