Bonnie Sashin smelled it wafting on State Street. Cathy Kleinbart gets a daily whiff on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Asya Partan encountered it while waiting to cross the BU Bridge. “A couple of guys opened a window and a cloud blew out,” she said.
Samantha Shapiro’s children smell it so often that her 9-year-old recently posed a question: “Why are there so many more skunks around?”
Sorry, kid, it’s not skunks.
As surely as Boston’s rising glass towers are changing the city’s look, marijuana smokers emboldened by the drug’s new legal status are altering the scentscape.
Despite all the discussion and lobbying ahead of last November’s ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana, the stinky problem of second-hand toking never seemed to be a big part of the conversation. But it’s turning out to be a meaningful factor, as people smoke in public (even though that is not allowed) and in their apartments or condos (which is sometimes allowed and sometimes not).
“I’ve had seniors come by and say they smell pot outside, in parks and on the streets, and I smell it, too,” said Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Democrat whose district includes Mattapan, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Roslindale and parts of Jamaica Plain.
“I’ve had people in rental properties who are very upset because strong pot smells are coming through the vents and the heaters,” Holmes added. He voted against pot legalization.
Cannabis, it seems, may be joining Greater Boston’s roster of iconic smells, both those still with us (sausages sizzling outside of Fenway Park, Lynn beach at low tide, the weird smell emanating from the Downtown Crossing T entrance) and those that live on in olfactory memory (the Baker Chocolate factory in Lower Mills, Buzzy’s Roast Beef after the bars closed).
Weed has long been part of Greater Boston’s bouquet, of course — the poster scent for Allston or Harvard Square or Boston Common. But in those areas you expect it. These days, the smell often catches you by surprise — on the Minuteman Bikeway at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday? Really? — and transports you.
But to where?
Steve Sweeney, the Charlestown-bred comedian, says the pungent smell takes him back to a time when he was drifting.
“I was pondering weathervanes and the color of blue and laughing at my shoes and eating Fritos,” he said. Today, he added, the smell feels like “an invasion of space. It’s right up there with listening to someone’s conversation on their cellphone.”
Hard as it may be to imagine, as the use of medical marijuana grows, pot’s smell won’t always remind people of their youth or concerts gone by.
“If your grandmother has cancer and is prescribed medical marijuana, you may come to associate the smell with her,” said Allison Shipp, an account manager at Air Aroma, a scent marketing agency that has designed fragrances for hotels, retailers — and the medical marijuana industry.
A West Hollywood dispensary eager to lighten the scent of its own product hired Air Aroma for help with smell management. Air Aroma pumped “Orange Fields” fragrance through the offices, with the idea of “complementing” but “not overpowering” the pot, Shipp said. “Smelling the product is often an important part of making the sale.”
When it comes to the senses, sight and hearing hog the attention, but smell plays a crucial role, said Danielle Legros Georges, Boston’s poet laureate and a professor at Lesley University.
“Smells help locate us in space and time,” she said. “Think of an outdoor barbecue after the grass has been cut. Or garbage day during the summer. The smells give us information. They help trigger memory.”
As pot works its way further into mainstream society, its distinct odor is likely to become more of an issue, in businesses, housing, and schools.
The drug’s illegal status
That drives some businesses to get creative in odor mitigation. Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, has heard of companies running cash through a dryer with a sheet of fabric softener or spraying individual bills with Febreze.
But, she said, “a state-licensed, responsible cannabis business owner shouldn’t have to stress about their revenue carrying a hint of product smell, any more than Sam Adams should worry that their cash smells like hops.”
In Colorado, where recreational pot has been legal for five years, a Colorado Springs school administrator told the Globe he now smells it all the time at work.
Parents regularly come to school reeking of pot, said the administrator, Chris Kilroy. “It’s so commonplace, it doesn’t raise a red flag.”
Kids arrive stinking, too, he said. Some have been smoking, he said (which would not be legal for anyone under 21). “But sometimes their parents were getting high on the way to school, so the kid just smells like it.”
Back in Boston, the question is: How much smellier is the city getting? No one keeps olfactory statistics, and the Boston Police Department has received few if any odor-related complaints, according to Lieutenant Michael McCarthy.
With a lack of hard numbers — and crucial public opinion at stake — a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project a Washington, D.C.-based pro-legalization group, made a point to say that he was in Boston 15 years ago and smelled pot back then.
“You have people who dislike marijuana saying it’s smelling more, and people who don’t dislike it say it’s no different than it’s ever been,” said Mason Tvert.
He knows what it’s like to put up with an unpleasant smell, he added. “I have a neighbor who grows his own coffee beans, and personally I find it disgusting.”