Marijuana Legislation 2016: Arizona Supreme Court Rules Pot Odor Enough To Warrant Police Search

While only a handful of states have legalized recreational marijuana in the U.S., exactly half of them (along with the District of Columbia) have legalized medical marijuana for their residents. While the state of Arizona isn’t generally on the politically-progressive side of things, they are one of the 25 states that have taken the more progressive stance in allowing medicinal pot. However, a ruling Monday by the Arizona State Supreme Court may turn the Grand Canyon State into a place that is less 420-friendly than many others.

As reported by FOX 10 Phoenix, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the smell of marijuana was enough to warrant the search of a suspect’s home or car, despite the fact that medicinal marijuana has been legal in the state since 2011. The decision was sent to the state’s Supreme Court after differing decisions were reached at two different divisions of the state Court of Appeals.

In the Phoenix division of the state Court of Appeals, a unanimous three-judge panel decided that the mere fact that medical marijuana is legal in the state of Arizona does not mean the smell of marijuana can’t be used to obtain a warrant to search a suspect’s car or home. In other words, some might argue that since marijuana is legal in Arizona, the mere smell of pot shouldn’t be enough to allow police to search someone.


That line of thinking is exactly what was ruled in the Tucson division of the state Court of Appeals in Arizona. A split decision from Tucson ruled that since medicinal cannabis was legal in Arizona, more evidence than just the smell of marijuana was required before a warrant could be issued. Since marijuana isn’t illegal for all residents of Arizona, the ruling argued, police shouldn’t be allowed to investigate a suspect based only on the smell of weed.

Since the rulings in Tucson and Phoenix were in opposition to each other, as noted by Cannabis Culture, the state Supreme Court agreed in March that they would hear the marijuana legislation case. Their ruling was very similar to the one found by the Court of Appeals in Phoenix, although it was more nuanced. Specifically, their ruling explains, as follows.

“In sum, under the totality of the circumstances presented here, the odor of marijuana established probable cause. We have no occasion to assess how, in other circumstances, probable cause might be dispelled by such facts as a person’s presentation of a valid registration card. We affirm the trial court’s ruling denying the motion to suppress, vacate the court of appeals’ opinion, and remand to the court of appeals…”

The somewhat vague wording leaves a lot to interpretation, at least at first glance. The Arizona Supreme Court Ruling says that the odor of marijuana, all by itself, can be enough to warrant the search of a person, car, or home. However, since medical marijuana is legal in the state, if a police officer has reason to believe that a suspect has a license to possess marijuana (such as a valid ID card proving they have a medical prescription for cannabis in Arizona), then the smell of marijuana can be ignored, at the police officer’s discretion. The wording doesn’t specify that a police officer must ignore the smell if they believe the suspect has a license, only that they can choose to not use the smell as a reason to investigate.

[Photo by Matilde Campodonico/AP Images]