Law enforcement will no longer be able to stop a vehicle or person in Maryland solely based on the smell of cannabis, under a bill that will become law without Gov. Wes Moore’s signature.

The bill was one of the most passionately debated measures in the 2023 General Assembly session and won final passage just minutes before adjournment. Its final fate has been unclear for several weeks, as the governor signed hundreds of other bills into law — including the July 1 legalization of adult cannabis use — but not the odor bill.

Moore, a Democrat, did not explain his decision in a statement announcing the action on Friday afternoon.

Supporters said the change was necessary, given that adults will soon be able to legally use and possess small amounts of cannabis.

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“This bill will establish a policy that prevents officers from stopping motorists and searching their vehicles without evidence of intoxication or any other just cause, protecting Marylanders from illegal searches and abating unjust criminalization,” the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland wrote to fellow lawmakers in support of the bill.

The proposal, which goes into effect July 1, came under criticism, however, from police, sheriffs and prosecutors.

“Using odor of cannabis alone as grounds to briefly detain a person or to search a vehicle will not violate the Fourth Amendment and would be reasonable,” wrote the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and Maryland Sheriffs’ Association in testimony to lawmakers.

Republican lawmakers also largely opposed the bill. In the final minutes of the General Assembly session, House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones did not allow lawmakers to explain their votes on the cannabis odor bill. Some frustrated Republican delegates headed for the exits, while one held up proceedings and yelled at the speaker. (He later apologized.)

The state’s highest court has previously offered conflicting guidance on how officers can handle the smell of marijuana, according to a nonpartisan analysis of the bill. In 2020, the court held that the odor alone isn’t indicative of an illegal amount of the drug and does not meet the standard of probable cause for a search. Then in 2022, the court held that odor “provides a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity sufficient to conduct a brief investigatory detention.”

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The bill also states that when a law enforcement officer is investigating a person for suspicion of driving under the influence of cannabis, the officer cannot search areas of the vehicle that aren’t immediately around the driver or aren’t likely to contain evidence relevant to the driver’s level of impairment.

Any evidence that’s improperly obtained won’t be admissible in court.

The bill was among 10 that will become law without the governor’s sign-off, Moore’s office announced Friday afternoon. He also vetoed three bills; two that were duplicative of other measures he signed and another that would have changed the process for the state to contract with companies for commuter bus service.

Moore previously signed hundreds of bills into law, including measures that will let Marylanders decide in 2024 whether to put reproductive rights into the state constitution, raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour on Jan. 1, grant a bigger tax break to retired veterans, set up the framework for the cannabis industry, restrict the use of concealed carry handgun permits, and expand trans health coverage for those with Medicaid insurance.

pamela.wood@thebaltimorebanner.com

Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County. 

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