In 2008 Massachusetts decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. Possession of more than one ounce is still a crime. Needless to say, it is not an unusual occurance for police to encounter automobiles with the smell of marijuana. In the past, the smell of marijuana was basis for a full search of the automobile and the occupants.
Two cases in Massachusetts make it clear that the odor of marijuana, burnt or fresh, by itself, does not constitute probable cause to search the car. In Commonwealth v.Cruz, 459 Mass. 459 (2011), the court held that the odor of burnt marijuana could not be the basis of a search of a car. More recently, in Commonwealth v. Craan, 469Mass. 24 (2014), the court reached the same result for fresh marijuana. Since possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is not a crime and smoking marijuana is not a crime, then the odor of marijuana does not mean that a crime is or has been committed under state law. Mere possession of small amounts of marijuana is still a federal crime but Massachusetts police officers are not permitted to search for evidence of this federal crime since the equivalent crime was decriminalized in Massachusetts.
Both decisions indicate that the smell of marjuana, by itself, does not mean that a crime has been committed. However, operating a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana is a crime in Massachusetts just as operating under the influence of alcohol is a crime. The odor of marijuana is now equivalent to the odor of alcohol.
If a police officer stops a car and smells alcohol, this does not mean a crime has been committed. However, if the police officer detects symptoms of impairment along with the odor of alcohol, then the police officer may have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. If a driver has slurred speech, glassy eyes, exhibited irregular driving, or other symptoms of impairment, coupled with the odor of alchol or marijuana, then the officer may have reason to believe that the crime of operating under the influence occurred. In Massachusetts the odor or alcohol and the odor of marijuana are not treated the same. Odor, by itself, is not a reason to search a car. The odor with some indication of impaired driving can be sufficient reasons to search a car.
Any person who is arrested after a police officer smells marijuana and then searches a car should contact an attorney immediately.