Pubdate: Sun, 17 Oct 2010
Source: Napa Valley Register (CA)
Copyright: 2010 Lee Enterprises
Author: Kevin Courtney


To a visitor, the street appears so very normal. Tidy home after tidy
home. There's the sense that nothing exciting ever happens here.

But wait. What's that smell?

It's more than funky. More like stinky. Clearly, something mighty
peculiar is going on.

A homeowner on this street -- let's call him Tom -- called me at the
paper last month and introduced himself. He asked if I would pay him a

"You don't drive a marked car, do you," he said.

Marked car? Was this guy nuts?

Not exactly. Just paranoid. He didn't want his next-door neighbor to
know that he'd summoned a reporter.

Tom and his wife -- let's call her Jane -- have a problem. In the fall
of the year, nose-curling odors waft into their backyard and creep
into their home.

"Sometimes it gets so bad, especially at dinnertime, we close up the
house and put the air conditioner on," Tom said. The stench kills the
flavor of wine, he noted.

I visited on a weekday evening. Ringing the doorbell, I smelled
nothing amiss. In the living room, all seemed normal as well.

What's up? I said.

It's their neighbors, Tom said. For the second year in a row, the
folks next-door are growing marijuana. The plants, each as tall as an
adult, are scattered around their swimming pool in wine barrels.

With harvest maturity, the plants give off an acrid odor of
exceptional power, Jane said. When she first noticed the smell a year
ago, "I thought skunks were mating continuously," she said.

Tom and Jane were slow to realize what was going on. "Finally we got
the binoculars out. Oh, these aren't tomato plants," Tom said.

This year, the odor started in early September and will probably last
until the plants are harvested later this month, Tom said. The wafting
occurs with the evening breezes.

"The odor's here at 6:30, 7:30, 8:30, 11 and 12:30. If you have your
window open, it's all night," Tom said.

I wondered if I was dealing with neurotics. Complainers who whine
about everything and anything.

Let's go into the backyard, I said. I need to take a

One step into the yard and wham! My nose was knocked for a loop by the
nastiest, skunkiest odor.

You know how you sometimes drive down I-80 and get whacked by fumes
from the Chevron refinery? Or the pungent stockyards at Harris Ranch
on I-5? This was comparable, only skunky.

We retreated indoors and shut the door.

Tom said he has no problem with people who toke in the privacy of
their homes or with the city preparing to issue a permit for the
Napa's first legal medical marijuana dispensary.

But he does have a problem when a neighbor's grow operation engulfs
his property every fall with odors most foul. "This is more than some
teenage kid doing his thing," he said.

"It's embarrassing to have company over and have to explain what it
is," Tom said. To his chagrin, one neighbor thought that he and Jane
were the source of the smell.

As bad as the smell is, Tom and Jane don't want to confront their
neighbor or call the cops. They have a friendly relationship that goes
back years. They don't want to risk a neighborhood "war."

Their neighbors could have medical marijuana cards that make growing
for personal use legal, Tom acknowledged.

It's also possible that their neighbors, who have experienced
unemployment, are raising a commercial crop to cover household expenses.

He just doesn't know.

If I wrote a column, maybe his neighbors will realize the impact of
what they're doing and shape up, Tom said. Perhaps the plants could be
grown in a greenhouse.

Gary Pitkin, commander of the Napa Special Investigations Bureau, said
his agency probably gets a call or two per week during harvest from
city residents who can smell their neighbors' ripening plants.

"We're overwhelmed," Pitkin said. Because his agents are busy with
other drug enforcement problems, "We don't go out on all of them," he

One mature plant can produce nearly 1,000 joints, Pitkin said. A half
dozen plants could produce a crop worth $50,000 or more.

Given the state of the law today, if the grower has a doctor's
recommendation, backyard plants are probably legal, he said.

When the city debated its medical marijuana clinic policy, the issue
of odor hardly came up. Advocates asserted their rights. Someone might
not like the skunky smell just as someone might object to the scent of
their neighbor's lilac, one said.

It's a prickly issue, Pitkin said. "At what point do your rights trump
your neighbor's rights?"

I don't have an answer. All I know is that if I were downwind from
such a neighbor, my quality of life would be in the toilet.

They don't call marijuana the "skunk weed" for nothing.  
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