Legalized Marijuana Means Fewer Traffic Searches

By Kelly Burch 06/29/17

The lower rates of car searches could affect police departments, which often rely on items seized during searches to cover expenses. 

Police officer talking to a driver on the side of the road.

The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington led to a reduction in the number of traffic searches, when police search a vehicle because of suspicion of the law being broken. 

The smell of marijuana or seeing drug paraphernalia in a car during a traffic stop is often cause enough for an officer to search the vehicle. However, when those justifications were taken away, the number of cars being searched dropped, according to a report by the Open Policing Project at Stanford University, which analyzed public data of over 100 million traffic stops and searches since 2015.

“After marijuana use was legalized, Colorado and Washington saw dramatic drops in search rates,” the report authors said, according to The Washington Post. “That’s because many searches are drug-related. Take away marijuana as a crime and searches go down.”

The data showed that the number of searches fell for black, white and Hispanic drivers in states with legalized marijuana, contrary to trends in states where marijuana was still illegal. Despite that, black and Hispanic drivers were still searched more than whites, even in states where pot was legalized. 

As marijuana legalization becomes increasingly common, the lower rates of car searches could affect police departments, which often rely on items seized during searches to cover department expenses. 

“In tight budget periods, and even in times of budget surpluses, using asset forfeiture dollars to purchase equipment and training to stay current with the ever-changing trends in crime fighting helps serve and protect the citizens,” Prince George’s County, Md., police spokeswoman Julie Parker told The Washington Post in response to a story about the widespread practice. 

The paper has reported in the past about how traffic stops can be used to justify seizure of property, even when no arrests are made. 

“We have been fighting this battle for a number of years . . . but it is just breathtaking to hear what is happening on a grand scale,” Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties group in Arlington, told The Washington Post. “It should not exist in a country that respects fundamental notions of due process.”

Marijuana legalization will likely have many affects on policing in the coming years. A report from earlier this year showed that police raids involving marijuana are more deadly than the drug itself. Twenty people have been killed in police raids involving pot since 2010, while there have been no deaths caused by using marijuana. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.