Weed Odor Is No Longer a Justified Reason for Police to Search Cars in Virginia
Not only did Virginia's Senate vote to end police stops for the smell of weed, but a second bill also passed that will reclassify possession of pot in a car from a primary to a secondary crime.
Published on August 31, 2020

The Virginia Senate just voted in favor of two relatively minor marijuana reform bills that could have a significant impact on state citizen’s day-to-day lives, especially those in Black and Brown communities.

First, Senate Bill 5029, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), will prohibit cops from stopping a vehicle and conducting searches and/or seizures solely based on officers’ claims of detecting the smell of weed. The bill passed with a 21-15 vote and, as a result, cops will no longer be able to use the “It smells like pot” excuse to ruin people’s  lives and, by extension, devastate entire minority communities.

The second successful bill will reclassify possession of marijuana in a motor vehicle from a primary to a secondary offense. That means officers cannot issue a summons if they find weed in your car; they have to charge you with a separate individual crime first. That said, such “crimes” can (and often do) include nonsense like driving with tinted windows or having a poorly lit rear license plate. 

The Virginia General Assembly’s vote to decriminalize marijuana went into effect on July 1, 2020. Possession of up to an ounce of cannabis now counts as a $25 civil penalty with no jail time, which is down from a $500 fine and 30 days behind bars for up to half an ounce.

Hoping to keep this momentum toward marijuana sanity moving forward, Virginia lawmakers are working on other notable reform measures. For instance, the state Senate has already voted 29-7 in favor of Bill 5013, which enables anyone popped for possession to prepay the $25 fine rather than go to court.

Virginia’s House of Reps is also considering its own take on the secondary offense measure. Bill 5058 will go even further than the Senate’s version and will prevent individual counties from voting to keep possession of pot in a motor vehicle a primary offense, even when state law dictates it is a secondary offense. That bill won a 13-7 vote in the House’s Courts of Justice Committee last week.

Delegate Jennifer Caroll Foy, who is running for governor in 2021, recently introduced Bill 5141, which will legalize cannabis in Virginia outright. Tweeting on August 27, Foy wrote, “Yesterday I proposed legislation to legalize the simple possession of marijuana in Virginia. Marijuana reform is key to ending mass-incarceration.”

This is a huge step in the right direction, considering Virginia still has yet to legalize medical or adult-use pot in the state. “While there is much more work to be done surrounding criminal justice and cannabis policy, these bills are important steps for the Commonwealth can and should immediately take,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, the Virginia-based Developmental Director of NORML told Marijuana Moment. “Prohibiting law enforcement from searching an individual or vehicle solely based on the odor of marijuana will greatly reduce non-essential interactions between law enforcement and otherwise law-abiding members of the public.”

Mike McPadden
Mike McPadden is the author of "Heavy Metal Movies" and the upcoming "Last American Virgins." He writes about movies, music, and crime in Chicago. Twitter @mcbeardo
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