Arizona may have passed medical marijuana laws in 2010 and have recreational marijuana on the ballot this November, but that doesn’t mean law enforcement officers are going to be lax with marijuana cases. In July, the Arizona Supreme Court made a significant ruling stating that police can still use the odor of marijuana as probably cause to pull an individual over. Chief Supreme Court Justice Scott Bales, the judge who made the ruling, made it very clear that the only permissible uses of marijuana are the specific circumstances dictated by the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.
Prior to Justice Bales’ decision, the Court of Appeals issued a ruling in 2015 stating that the smell of marijuana was no longer enough to prove probable cause that a crime has been committed. With Justice Bales overruling of the appeals court’s decision, law enforcement officers will have the freedom to pull individuals over based on the presence of the odor of marijuana. This ruling only underscores the existing tensions in Arizona.
A topic that’s made Arizona the recipient of vast criticism has been the mired controversies regarding racial profiling. Already there have been concerns for years about officers in Arizona attempting to target undocumented immigrants. The ruling made by Justice Bales allows law enforcement officers greater discretion in determining when to pull an individual over, as it extends to premises and vehicles.
Arizona’s anti-immigration law requires police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is “reasonable suspicion” they are not in the U.S. legally. Of course, one of the main criticisms of the law is that law enforcement officers are put in a position where they must identify undocumented immigrants. Yet, how are they to do that job without racially profiling an individual based on their appearance or the type of vehicle they’re driving? Essentially, the law gives police officers the authority to ask someone for their identification papers if they suspect the individual may be undocumented. The law fails to identify though what specific methods an officer may be able to use to determine whether an individual is undocumented or not.
The law does specify that state and local law enforcement officers are only required to attempt to determine the immigration status of a person only while in the process of a lawful stop, detention or arrest. Certainly it seems reasonable that one’s immigration status might be up for question if they are arrested; however, to allow that judgment during lawful stops encourages officers to be on the look out for certain drivers. Officers have the ability to pull anyone over when there is suspicion that a law is being violated. As the law extends to traffic stops, concerns exist that officers may use traffic infractions and violations as a way to legitimately pull an individual over, only to question the status of their immigration.
The clarification of the medical marijuana laws by Justice Bales gives law enforcement officers another excuse to pull an individual over. Unlike speeding or swerving in lanes though—which can all be caught and verified on a dash or body camera—odor is not something that can be identified or proven through video. Justice Bales’ ruling was made in regards to two different cases where individuals were charged with drug crimes based on the odor of marijuana. Both of their attorneys argued that due to the existing medical marijuana laws, the odor of marijuana no longer served as probable cause alone.
So the moral of the story is, if you’re a resident of Arizona, make sure the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act covers you if you have cannabis with you. Officers are not going to turn a blind eye to those breaking the current medical laws. If you’re from out of state, Arizona does allow your medical card to be transferable, to a certain extent. You can still consume marijuana in Arizona, however out of state patients are not allowed to visit local dispensaries.
Perhaps as Arizona’s medical marijuana laws change, or if recreational marijuana legislation were to pass, the laws might change. But it’ll ultimately be up to voters to make that call.