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Study Shows Packaging Can Affect Cannabis Odors


Pay a visit to a typical cannabis dispensary or pharmacy and you are likely to detect the unmistakable odor of marijuana in all its glory. Every strain of cannabis has a specific odor profile depending on the terpenes in the plant. Those terpenes are so odiferous that cannabis can be picked up by the nose quite easily. However, a study done a couple of years ago suggests that packaging can change things.

The study was motivated by a 2017 arrest in Colorado. In that case, a Colorado state trooper pulled over a driver for a minor infraction, then searched his car based on the claim that he smelled marijuana. He found fifty-two pounds of weed. Incidentally, suspicion based on a smell is probable cause, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

To make a long story short, the defendant reached a plea deal with prosecutors to avoid trial. The scientists enlisted by defense attorneys to prove that the trooper could not smell anything went on to conduct a study to demonstrate that their initial findings were accurate.

Double Vacuum-Sealed Plastic

The crux of the defense in the Colorado case was that the marijuana was wrapped in double vacuum-sealed plastic. Defense scientists actually went to law enforcement facilities to do their own smell test. They also took air samples that were later tested in a lab setting. They determined it was impossible for the state trooper to have smelled anything.

They took that knowledge and applied it to a more comprehensive study involving a lot more participants in a controlled environment. They determined that cannabis sealed tightly in a double vacuum-sealed plastic is undetectable by the human nose.

On the other hand, marijuana packaged in other ways could still be smelled. Put it in a single plastic sandwich bag and all bets are off. The same for transporting in a paper envelope, a grocery bag, or anything else that is not tightly sealed. Even a plastic food container may not do the trick. But double vacuum-sealed plastic apparently does.

The Smell Test Isn’t Reliable

The point of all of this is to say that the smell test recognized by the Supreme Court is not necessarily reliable. Critics of the test contend that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting police officers just claim to smell marijuana in order to justify an otherwise unwarranted search. Could it be that’s why prosecutors in the Colorado case agreed to a plea deal?

Determining that the smell test is unreliable would not have a significant impact on Colorado at this point. Nor would it matter much in other recreational-use states – with the possible exception of going after the illicit market. But it would have huge implications in medical-only states like Utah.

Utahmarijuana.org says the Beehive State is one of the most restrictive medical cannabis states in the country. Only licensed cultivators can grow cannabis. Only licensed processors can process plant material and manufacture cannabis products. Only licensed pharmacies can dispense medical cannabis products. All along the way, there are tight limits on how much product can be possessed at any given time.

Abolishing the Smell Test

Abolishing the smell test would reduce law enforcement’s ability to enforce the law in Utah. It would make it easier for illicit operators to transport cannabis. But in reality, now that the secret is out about double vacuum-sealed plastic, does it really matter?

Scientific testing has proved that the human nose cannot detect marijuana when it is packaged in double vacuum-sealed plastic. There may be a few extra powerful noses out there, but most of us wouldn’t smell a thing.