Cops Told the ‘Smell of Cannabis’ Doesn’t Justify Stop and Search

A new report from the police watchdog calls for huge improvements to stop and searches to reduce racial profiling.
police stop and search drugs
PHOTO: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images

Police officers should not be allowed to stop someone solely on the “smell of cannabis” in stop and searches, the police watchdog for England and Wales has advised. 

The report from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), published on Wednesday, makes numerous recommendations to improve the use of stop and searches, a policing technique that is statistically more likely to target people from a Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic background. 


Reviewing 37 IOPC investigations and key data, the report makes recommendations to the Home Office and National Police Chiefs Council on how to reduce racial profiling in a stop and search, particularly when weed is suspected to be involved. 

While it’s currently not illegal to conduct a stop and search when a police officer can smell cannabis, the IOPC recommends that the Home Office reviews “what constitutes grounds for suspicion for cannabis possession” and whether “the smell of cannabis alone” is a legitimate reason to stop someone.

The report details 12 instances where Black people felt specifically targeted because of these grounds. In one instance, a 15-year-old boy was stopped by a police officer in a high-crime area on suspicion of being involved in drug dealing purely because the police officer claimed they could smell cannabis. The police officer did not find any drugs and was later convicted of assault after video footage showed him punching the child and kicking him when he was on the ground.

Other examples include a Black man driving in an area of alleged drug activity stopped because the officer thought his car was “typical of the type of car driven by drug dealers”, or a Black man being stopped for possession of drugs after he glanced at a police vehicle numerous times. In all cases, the suspicions were unfounded and no drugs were found. 


In the last year, stop and searches increased by 24 percent in the year ending March 2021, while stops for drug searches increased by 36 percent, according to Home Office data. Despite the prevalence of stop and searches, 77 percent resulted in no further action.

Stop and search has consistently been condemned for disproportionately targeting Black people. According to Home Office data, in the year ending March 2021, people from a Black or Black British background were 7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than those from a White ethnic background.

People from an Asian or Asian British background, or mixed ethnic background, were approximately 2.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than those from a White ethnic background.

IOPC lead on discrimination Sal Naseem said: “We are concerned about the impact of stop and search on ethnic minority groups, in particular the negative effect it can have on public confidence in policing. It cannot be underestimated how traumatic a stop and search encounter can be on an individual. If carried out insensitively, a person can be left feeling humiliated and victimised.

“It is time to break the cycle.”