Pot Odor Bans Stink: Would Marijuana By Any Other Name Smell Just as Rank?

The Smell Test

Denver's new proposed pot oridinance totally stinks. Just ask the guy holding a Nasal Ranger. (Image courtesy 7News Denver)

Not everybody likes the smell of cannabis. But unlike farts, body odor, and Axe Body Spray, the mere olfactory presence of otherwise legal marijuana could soon bring prison sentences of up to a year—if a newly proposed Denver city ordinance passes.

“This proposed ordinance clearly communicates what our residents and visitors are and are not allowed to do in public,” according to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, “It respects the will of the voters, who last year approved Amendment 64, which allows people over 21 to have and consume a small amount of marijuana. It also ensures that our public spaces remain enjoyable for residents, families and tourists.”

But what about blazing a joint in your own backyard or apartment. Could one whiff from a nosey neighbor really land you behind bars? According to Denver resident Mason Tvert, Director of Communications at the Marijuana Policy Project and co-director of Colorado's successful Amendment 64 campaign, that's not even the worst of it.

“If this ordinance is adopted, the citizens of Denver will pay for police to snoop through people’s windows and sniff around their homes, looking for a reason to put them in jail for up to a year for doing something legal under the state constitution,” Tvert says. “City officials would not just be squandering taxpayer money, they would be putting the city at risk of a costly lawsuit they are sure to lose. Because it's not a question of whether the proposed ordinance is unconstitutional. Rather, it is a question of how much the city will have to spend on legal bills before the ordinance is overturned.”

According to Tvert, a council-initiated law can't directly violate a voter-approved law like Amendment 64, “which specifically says adults cannot be prohibited from privately possessing, displaying, or using marijuana.” The ACLU of Colorado has already promised to sue if the ordinance passes, which could cost the city potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in a likely losing effort to defend a really dumb law.

"In effect, Denver is trying to recriminalize marijuana," according to cannabis comedian Ngaio Bealum, "I bet this was proposed by either the private prison industry or the vapor pen lobby."

Certainly some find the smell of pot personally offensive. It's also very likely most vegans don't enjoy the aroma of their neighbors' backyard BBQs. They might even find inhaling the scent of burning animal flesh a rather nightmarish experience. But we don't lock people up for grilling a flank steak on their own property. Nor would the same rules apply to smoking an equally legal tobacco cigarette, even though cancer sticks actually, you know, kill a shitload of people. Which makes it clear this whole ordinance isn't about smells, but about the shrinking minority still opposed to cannabis trying to exert their will over the vast majority who just voted to legalize it.

In Denver, the Department of Environmental Health already investigates excessively smelly marijuana grows using a product called, no joke, the Nasal Ranger—a “field olfactometer” designed to detect and measure odors. Cannabis odors that reach levels of 8:1 or greater constitute a violation, resulting in a fine of up to $2,000. In 2012, authorities responded to 16 cannabis odor complaints, a record high. (Contrast this with Seattle, the other capital city of MarijuanAmerica, where Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Development, recently declared. “The smell of marijuana is not harmful. We don’t have any regulations for odors that are not considered harmful.")

Meanwhile, the proposed new ordinance in Denver includes a Kafka-esque provision requiring anyone buying marijuana at a legal store on the city's tourist-trap 16th Street Mall to immediately leave the area, as even possession of a legal amount of bud (without smoking or displaying it) would run afoul of the law as written. This also applies to possessing or transporting marijuana “within any park, parkway, mountain park or other recreational facility.”

Fortunately, not every city council member is on board for so grossly subverting the will of the people. The ordinance reportedly got a cool reception when first brought up for debate, with several council members condemning the most egregious provisions as “overreach.”

Paul Lozez expressed serious concerns regarding how the ordinance would effect minorities.

“What gives me the most heartburn is that I do not like to see people arrested for low-level offenses, and we know who those people are.”

Still, lawmakers didn't rule out moving forward at a later date with a revised version of the ordinance. So marijuana breeders of the world might want to start working on a scent free strain just in case. Until then, the rest of us should study up on these tips for smoke proofing your weed room. Because the War on Marijuana-smell isn't confined to just the Mile High City.

In Redding, California, local citizens have started a grassroots campaign to ban outdoor marijuana grows based, at least in part, on smell complaints. So is this a legitimate concern from non-tokers, or just another attempt to deny those who love cannabis their very freedom?