In Boston-area condos and apartments, the smell of pot pits neighbor against neighbor
It’s a truth known by pot smokers in condos and apartments all over town. In the old days, it was the cops you had to look out for. But now that marijuana is legal, new narcs are walking the beat: Mr. and Mrs. Beasley from Unit 3B.
In a paradox not lost on weed enthusiasts, as pot becomes more mainstream, smoking it in your own dwelling is becoming harder as neighbor turns against neighbor — estranged as the ever-more prevalent odor wafts through buildings.
Some condo associations in Greater Boston are trying to pass amendments to their governing documents that prohibit residents from smoking pot — or growing stinky pot plants — in their own homes. Management companies are installing high-tech in-unit detectors that send real-time alerts ratting out smokers. Lawyers are being retained to represent neighbors disturbed by smoke from those with medical marijuana permits.
In Belmont, Boston, and Newton, even a dog with a nose for dope is being called in. A Belgian Malinois named Ben has been trained to detect drugs and regularly gets hired to sniff around exterior door seams in condos and apartments. His owner, Tom Robichaud, the founder of Discreet Intervention in Wrentham, described a typical scenario: “I get a call from someone who owns a three-family house and units two and three are complaining that unit number one is smoking dope or something.”
In 2012, Massachusetts voters approved medical marijuana. In 2016, the state legalized recreational marijuana. Recreational sales are poised to start in July.
The recent surge in antismoking efforts has been prompted by marijuana, but any new condo rules also sweep in tobacco smokers, said attorney Richard Brooks.
“There are people who’ve been smoking cigarettes for 30 years and all of a sudden they’re being told they can’t smoke in their unit,” he said, adding that existing smokers are often grandfathered in — a deal designed to win their support for curbing pot smoking.
An uptick in complaints to property managers and lawyers about pot smoke quite clearly shows the unhappiness of some neighbors and condo boards. Consider the issues coming into the Chelsea offices of the Lundgren Management Group, which manages about 40 condo associations in Greater Boston.
“When I came home from working my second job this afternoon . . . there was an extremely strong odor of marijuana,” one resident in a Lundgren-managed building wrote. It “had to be coming from one of the end units either on the first, second, or maybe the third floor. . . . I called the ‘non-emergency’ number for the police and talked to the sergeant on duty. He said there was nothing he could do. He said to take it up with you guys.”
Another local resident also griped to condo management. “I keep getting a strong odor of marijuana coming through my heater,” the e-mail read. “I have also smelled the marijuana every time I have gone downstairs. I suffer from asthma and choose not to smoke and therefore should not be exposed to the secondhand smoke of others.”
Antismoking advocates have latched onto a recent story on National Public Radio that asked if there are risks from secondhand marijuana smoke and concluded the “early science says yes.”
A growing percentage of the new luxury condo buildings ban smoking of any sort from the get-go, and landlords can simply ban smoking in apartment buildings.
But condo associations in older buildings have a harder time dictating what owners can and cannot do in their own units. Condo boards typically have the power to ban smoking in public spaces. But a change in condo documents — to prohibit in-unit smoking where it’s previously been allowed — requires a vote of the condo association’s owners and support, usually, from at least two-thirds of the owners.
Feelings run strong on both sides, said Kevin Kelliher, president of Lundgren Management. “Some folks feel a smoking amendment is an infringement on their right to privacy, and of course the other side is feeling the effects of secondhand smoke.
“Several of our associations have attempted these amendments,” he said. “Some have passed it quickly by an overwhelming majority,” but in others, the attempt failed because fewer than half of owners voted to ban smoking.
In the Fenway, Charles Martel, who is a clinical social worker and president of his condo building’s board, said he is trying to persuade owners in the 44-unit, circa-1929 building to ban smoking or growing pot, “but there has been pushback.”
He and other antismoking advocates are trying to educate others about risks beyond unwanted odors, the impact of secondhand smoke, and the possibility that pot smoking could harm property values.
“We’re talking about people breaking into units [to steal pot plants],” he said. “The idea that pot is benign, or only an issue within a unit, is not true.”
In East Boston’s Jeffries Point, the owners of a three-unit condo voted to ban smoking of any substances after living with a unit owner who smoked pot heavily until he moved out.
“Our units constantly reeked of it,” the owner said, asking for anonymity so as not to offend her former neighbor. “It didn’t matter if the windows were open or not, and nothing would get the smell out.
“People who smoke weed seem unaware that the smell pervades the entire building, and it does not just dissipate as they seem to think,” she added. “As someone who has both asthma and allergies, it became difficult to live in my own home until he began going outside to smoke.”
As new condos and apartment buildings continue to rise throughout the region and pot becomes ever easier to get, the issues surrounding smoking and growing are likely to grow.
“I could talk for hours about the complications,” said Thomas Moriarty, a Braintree lawyer who lectures on pot-related issues for the New England chapter of the Community Associations Institute, an organization for condo associations and related professionals.
Among those complications:
What happens when one resident’s right to medical marijuana bumps up against another resident’s desire for smoke-free air, or even a medical need for smoke-free air?
Or when one person’s pot plants — which require a lot of water and heat — not only drive up shared costs and the risk of water or fire damage but threaten to undermine insurance coverage, since marijuana remains a federally prohibited drug?
(Under the new state rules, residents can grow up to six plants at home or 12 if more than one adult lives there.)
But even in buildings where no-smoking pot rules are in place, people are lighting up.
Consider the situation at a large luxury condo building in Cambridge near the Museum of Science.
The owners voted to prohibit all smoking three years ago, but complaints of violations have reached such a point that the general manager, Laura Cardoos, is researching in-unit wireless sensors that silently alert building management to smoking. “It’s difficult to chase someone with just your nose,” she said.
But sometimes neighbors know exactly who’s smoking, and go after the person directly. That’s what Katherine Burchman — who regularly vapes marijuana — says is happening in her Fenway condo.
“It’s a witch hunt,” she said, noting that she’s caught an upstairs neighbor sniffing outside her door.
Her neighbor feels within her rights, Burchman acknowledged, because the building has voted to ban smoking and vaping. Burchman bought into the building before rules were in place but hasn’t been grandfathered in.
“I feel like I can’t be comfortable in my own home,” she said.