Amid Marijuana Legalization, a Civic Problem Lingers: That Smell

Amid Marijuana Legalization, a Civic Problem Lingers: That Smell

The pungent odor of cannabis has emerged as a quality-of-life issue from New York City to Amsterdam.

In what’s considered a nationwide first, a 76-year-old woman in Washington, DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood sued the tenant who lived in a rental apartment adjoining her home, arguing that she was made ill by the smell of the smoke from the cannabis he was using. The civil suit, filed in 2020, eventually went to trial; the defendant, a 73-year-old restaurant manager, argued that smoking medically prescribed marijuana eased his pain and sleeplessness, and that he took only a few puffs each night. “I am not Snoop Dogg,” he said at trial.

But in June, a judge ordered the tenant to refrain from smoking pot not only in his own home, but also within 25 feet of her residence.

The case stands to be a landmark in the fast-evolving landscape of legal weed in US cities. Possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use has been permitted in the District since 2015; currently, 24 states have also decriminalized the drug to various degrees. But many jurisdictions, including DC, stipulate that weed cannot be smoked on public streets, sidewalks and parks. And apartment-dwelling smokers who follow the law and indulge in their own homes may find that the herb’s pungent side effects can lead to friction with nearby tenants. In the wake of the ongoing wave of cannabis legalization, a vexing question is wafting across the urban policy space: What do we do about the smell?

Legal weed and its associated funk has generated more than just lawsuits from unhappy neighbors and dueling takes about whether it really matters or not; it hangs over more serious new local regulations like the “odor laws” that prevent police from pulling drivers over if they smell pot. One thing, however, is clear: Lots of people really hate the fact that the public sphere is increasingly redolent of weed.

“We get numerous complaints from visitors to Times Square about the pervasive smell of marijuana,” says Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance. “It’s like Cheech and Chong out there, and guess what, it’s legal.”

In New York City, weed can be smoked anywhere a cigarette smoker can light up, with the exception of public parks and plazas. Since a 2021 state law legalized recreational marijuana, the number of misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession and use in the city has collapsed. In 2011, at the height of the “stop and frisk” era in NYC policing, more than 50,000 New Yorkers were nabbed on pot charges. At the end of 2023, that number stood at fewer than 500. Dismantling this cornerstone of the War on Drugs, many have argued, was long overdue, given the stark racial bias in marijuana enforcement.

But the weedification of New York City also has brought unforeseen consequences. Vape shops proliferated in the unsettled post-pandemic retail environment, thanks to their low startup costs and ability to squeeze into small storefronts: There are now perhaps 8,000 unlicensed smoke shops and dispensaries across the five boroughs, and Mayor Eric Adams is promising a crackdown. Even more noticeable, perhaps, have been the olfactory impacts. “It’s like everybody’s smoking a joint now,” Adams said at a press conference in 2022.

The issue is hardly limited to New York City. From the “Emerald Village,” a strip of cannabis businesses in West Hollywood, California, that boasts of having “more dispensaries per square mile than any city on earth,” to the vape-shop-lined stretch of H Street NE in Washington, DC, pedestrians are increasingly likely to sample an odoriferous amalgam of various marijuana strains on their strolls. (As one Reddit user noted: “DC doesn’t smell like weed. Weed smells like DC.”)

Even in Amsterdam, where cannabis has been decriminalized since the 1970s, city leaders are making efforts to clear the air: The Dutch city banned outdoor pot smoking in the tourist-heavy red light district in 2023.

This communal hotboxing of the public square, occurring as it did amid the Covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying disruptions, has brought a host of critics who decry the smell of weed as the skunky harbinger of broader urban collapse. There’s often a political dimension to this discourse, with conservative voices suggesting that the scent of the once-illicit substance reflects the disorder and criminality of liberal-dominated cities.

“People just have a bias toward people that are using cannabis,” says Aaron Smith, co-founder and CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade industry group. “It’s outliers of people who don’t like the fact that weed is legal. They see it as a culture war and they use the smell to poke at the laws.”

Lawmakers have seized on the issue: Last fall, a Republican New York state senator introduced a bill that would ban the consumption of legal weed anywhere in public statewide. On the local level, bans on smoking it in public have passed in Duluth, Minnesota, and Simsbury, Connecticut.

“This is an instance where the law was changed, and the law needs to be revisited,” Harris says. “Alcohol is legal; drinking alcohol in the city streets is not legal. The same law should be applied to the open smoking of cannabis.” The Times Square Alliance even launched a public education campaign, hanging signs in the popular pedestrianized area that read “Let’s Be Blunt: No Smoking In The Plazas.”

Fighting the funk can be a formidable challenge, however. Take Denver, which has been on the forefront of the issue since Colorado legalized weed in 2012. More than 300 commercial cannabis cultivation facilities swiftly sprouted up, and complaints from residents rolled in.

“Large swaths of the city reeked of cannabis,” says Tim Allen of those first years after legalization. Allen is an environmental public health investigator with Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment, charged with monitoring and enforcing marijuana odor complaints.

By 2016 every commercial facility had to produce an odor control plan and use carbon filtration to mitigate the smell. “Even with equipment in place you’re not going to totally remove the odor,” Allen says, but adds that the methods have led to a sharp drop in the number of calls he gets.

Recreational use, however, is a different animal. Denver’s law permits smoking on your own property provided you’re not in view of passersby on the street. But the rule is regularly flouted, and enforcement is rare: Only 23 Denverites were arrested for public consumption in 2022. Spotting someone with a big fat blunt in hand is one thing. But suppose you only catch a fleeting scent of marijuana.

“It’s a very difficult thing to pinpoint,” says Allen. “I don’t know if anybody has figured out or has the manpower to tackle that problem.”

Foul aromas, of course, are nothing new to cities. Nineteenth-century New Yorkers coexisted with slaughterhouses and gasworks just down the street — not to mention the effluent of something like 200,000 horses. At a time when miasma theory was all the rage, the thinking was that bad smells were the root cause of illness, nausea, headaches, sleeplessness and a range of other physical effects. In response, the city board of health imposed restrictions to try to curb the stench, like airtight tanks designed for rendering pork fat.

“Cities were regulating odors because they were dangerous,” says Melanie Kiechle, a history professor at Virginia Tech and author of Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Urban America, 1840-1900. “That’s a key distinction between what was happening then and people not liking the smell of weed now.”

To Kiechle, it’s strange that there’s a focus on weed smoke “when there are other things that people are regularly inhaling.” After all, diesel fumes, car exhaust and industrial pollution are far more prevalent — and dangerous — than a passing haze of Sour Apple or Pineapple Express.

Plus, not everyone finds the earthy scent objectionable: One 2023 survey of 600 New Jersey residents, for example, found that barely one-fifth of people complained about people smoking pot in the open. As the age of legal cannabis continues, the drug’s unsavory associations with youthful lawbreakers and ’70s Sabbath concerts may further fade. Weed will become just another thing you smell in the city.

For now, though, the question of what to do about ganja and its smell, if anything, is far from being extinguished. “People don’t like to walk through a crowd of people and have this whiff of marijuana,” says Harris. “They just shouldn’t be subjected to that.”

For more Cannabis News like this, circle back to!

420 Intel News | 420 Advertising | Cannabis Business News | Medical Marijuana News | Recreational Marijuana News

Region: North America

Disqus content widget