"They have a golden ticket for a free search of your car," Lomurro said. "The smell of marijuana has been used as a tool to support police investigation for a long time."
That would change under the New Jersey marijuana legalization bill pending in the Legislature. In addition to legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana possession and use for recreational purposes, the bill would officially remove the smell of marijuana — or sight, in most cases — as probable cause for police to search a vehicle.
Instead, officers would be required to assume that the driver is using marijuana in a legal way unless they can provide evidence proving otherwise. Unless it's on prison or school property, the odor of cannabis will no longer "constitute reasonable articulable suspicion of a crime."
According to marijuana legalization advocates, the change is seen as key to addressing a social justice justification for legalizing weed — by narrowing the circumstances where law enforcement could legally invade the space of a motorist and their property.
The change is seen as particularly benefiting African American users, who are three times as likely to get arrested on marijuana charges as their white counterparts, despite similar usage rates. Gov. Phil Murphy has said that legalizing weed would be a "monumental step" toward bridging racial disparities in those arrests.
While the change has caused controversy in states that already have legalized weed, law enforcement has not been left toothless.