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Legalized Marijuana Makes It Harder for Police to Search

Drug policy experts often say that marijuana health risks are minor compared to the costs of marijuana enforcement. Law enforcement agencies, however, have often been opposed to marijuana legalization. One reason is that the drug, with its pungent aroma, is relatively easy to detect in the course of a traffic stop or other routine interaction. It’s an ideal pretext for initiating a search that otherwise would not be justified.

After states, like Colorado and Washington, legalized pot, traffic searches declined sharply across the board. That is according to the Open Policing Project at Stanford University, which has been analyzing 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 study’s authors explain. “That is because many searches are drug-related. Take away marijuana as a crime and searches go down.” In Colorado and Washington, traffic searches of black, hispanic and white drivers fell significantly after legalization. That pattern didn’t hold for states where marijuana use remained illegal. The Project’s data encompasses traffic searches initiated for any reason but excludes searches following an arrest.

Despite this data, black and hispanic motorists are still searched at considerably higher rates than white motorists. But following legalization, they are searched less often than they were before. In 2014, a Washington Post investigation detailed how highway police often use suspicion of marijuana as justification to search drivers’ vehicles and ultimately seize cash and property from them, regardless of whether any drugs are ultimately found.

From 2002 to 2012, the federal government seized roughly $1 billion in cash and other assets related to marijuana cases. That figure doesn’t include seizures made by state and local law enforcement authorities who handle most of the nation’s drug enforcement. If legalization leads to fewer searches, that also means fewer seizures of cash and property. Ultimately, legalization could have a significant negative impact on the finances of police departments that have come to rely on those seizures to fill their budgets.

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