The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled Wednesday that police officers cannot search vehicles based solely upon the smell of unburnt marijuana, Boston.com reports. The court had previously decided that warrantless searches of pedestrians or cars for the smell of burned marijuana were illegal in 2011. They believed that allowing unwarranted searches based on the smell of marijuana would be inconsistent with the 2008 law that decriminalized marijuana in Massachusetts. The ruling on Wednesday was based on the fact that the human nose cannot discern the presence of a criminal amount of marijuana as opposed to a non-criminal amount. Possession of less than an ounce is not a crime in Massachusetts and, as the police cannot reliably distinguish criminal amounts of marijuana by smell, searches would not be legal. The justices wrote, “We are not confident, at least on this record, that a human nose can discern reliably the presence of a criminal amount of marijuana, as distinct from an amount subject only to a civil fine.”
The court said this decision was consistent with the will of the people who want the police to focus on more serious crimes. The court rejected the argument from law enforcement that they can search vehicles based on the smell of marijuana because possession of marijuana is still a criminal offense under federal law. Justice Barbara Lenk said, “The fact that such conduct is technically subject to a Federal prohibition does not provide an independent justification for a warrantless search.”
The rollout of Massachusetts’ medical marijuana program has been proceeding more slowly than anticipated, but a major milestone was reached last week with the approval of 11 dispensary applications. The Department of Public Health granted eleven provisional certificates on Friday, and it’s possible that some of the approved dispensaries will be ready to serve patients before the end of this year.
The department had previously given preliminary approval to 20 applicants, but, after further review of the applications, nine were rejected. Massachusetts’ law authorizes up to 35 dispensaries, so these rejected applicants and others will be allowed to reapply in 2015.
Additionally, it’s disappointing that the state has not yet made it possible for patients to apply for ID cards. However, with dispensaries planning to open in only a matter of months, it seems likely that the ID card issue will soon be resolved.
On Tuesday, MPP and allied advocates launched a ballot referendum committee to make marijuana legal, taxed, and regulated for adults in Massachusetts. The committee is called the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts and will allow MPP to begin raising money within Massachusetts. Massachusetts voters have shown a desire to reform their marijuana laws, first by decriminalizing simple possession in 2008, and then by approving a medical marijuana ballot initiative in 2012. In addition, a recent poll taken by WBUR/MassINC Polling Group found that 49% of Massachusetts voters support making marijuana legal.
MPP’s Mason Tvert weighed in on the future of MPP’s involvement in Massachusetts in Commonwealth Magazine, stating, “We’re going to be spending the next year working to build a coalition. We really want to replicate the Colorado process, and not just the winning part. We spent six months drafting the best possible initiative, and the most effective system we felt was possible. That’s our goal in Massachusetts: to get a large group of stakeholders, and write the best possible law. If the legislature wants to participate in drafting the law, they’ll have the opportunity. And if not, and if we believe it’s something the voters want, we have no choice but to take it to the ballot.”
Massachusetts’ medical marijuana law was implemented over a year ago, and now the state has granted its first 20 dispensary licenses. The Department of Public Heath received 100 applications and judged them based on proposed location and the ability of the dispensary to ensure public safety while simultaneously meeting the needs of its patients.
The law allows for 35 dispensary licenses; however, only 20 have been granted so far. More competition will mean lower prices for patients, so, the sooner the last 15 licenses are granted, the better.
Building on steadily increasing public support, a coalition of marijuana policy reformers are looking to 2016 to get an initiative on the Massachusetts ballot to make marijuana legal for adults and regulate it similarly to alcohol.
MPP was largely responsible for the successful 2008 campaign to remove the threat of arrest for possession of small amounts of marijuana in the state. Now, national and local advocates are preparing to end marijuana prohibition in the Bay State:
Outside groups are already pledging support – strategic and financial – to push for legalization in Massachusetts.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit that says it spent about $2 million on the successful 2012 campaign for legalization in Colorado, also plans to spend money in this state.
“We intend to support an initiative in Massachusetts in 2016 that would regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol,” said spokesman Mason Tvert.
Bill Downing, treasurer of Bay State Repeal, a group created to get the legalization question on the ballot, said he expects other national groups to back the effort here.