Pubdate: Sun, 24 Jun 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2018 The New York Times Company
Author: Ginia Bellafante


A few years ago when I served on the board of the co-op building where
I live in Brooklyn Heights - a fact suggesting a degree of squareness
so profound it should discredit my authority to go on - my next-door
neighbor came to me with recurring complaints that her apartment, at
various points, but mostly in the evenings, reeked of pot (that,
children, is what we of the Atari generation call it) so intensely
that it seemed as if someone had come in and lit up right on her sofa.
That her oldest daughter began to worry that she was getting a contact
high while she was doing her homework made me despair for a generation
and suggested that perhaps a certain unwarranted hysteria had taken
hold. Then one night, at a moment of extreme fragrancy, my neighbor
texted and asked me to come over and take a sniff for myself, and it
seemed as if I had walked into a commune in the Redwoods sometime
between the Tet offensive and the presidency of Gerald Ford.

The situation was especially curious, because no one in my household
smoked anything; there was no apartment on the other side and the one
directly below was undergoing a renovation and remained empty. My
neighbor wondered whether the couple above her on the top floor,
friends, were the ones indulging. But they were Holocaust survivors in
their 90s. Who was going to tell them to switch to sherry?

As it happened, the smell was coming from the apartment two floors
down, in the line. Middle-aged lawyers were doing the inhaling, and we
asked them if they could devise a way, perhaps through better
filtering or ventilation, to mitigate the problem. In retrospect this
was naive because so much of the pot commonly smoked today is pungent
enough to resist efforts to conceal it. Even when this couple
volunteered to stop smoking in their apartment, taking the habit
outside instead, the mere fact of the pot lying around the house
caused the smell to migrate upward in the building. Eventually they
committed to keeping their pot tightly wrapped in the freezer to
contain the odor. On several occasions I noticed that after one of
them had smoked outside and returned, the elevator in the building
retained the fierce smell for a while after.

This was only to be expected. A friend in a brownstone nearby told me
that the smell of pot smoke often traveled into her house through the
walls, from the building next door. This might also seem inconceivable
until you start reading online reviews of various popular strains, one
of which is called Wonder Woman and is described as having "a mostly
skunky smell with notes of fruit and jet fuel."

The vital work of decriminalizing marijuana has left pot smoke the
signature olfactory experience of New York, which is better than
rotting garbage on 85 degree days and infinitely preferable, quite
obviously, to the tragedy of locking up young black men for a pleasure
that white people have long enjoyed with impunity. There was a brief
period roughly between 2011 and 2014, after cigarettes were banned in
the city's public parks and plazas and before the strictures around
pot smoking began to loosen, when you could amble around the city and
pretty much only encounter the smell of smoke when and if you had the
misfortune of walking past a fire. But now it is possible to smell pot
smoke nearly all the time, on the street, in every neighborhood, no
matter the hour of the day. It is unusual to walk five or six blocks
anywhere in New York, without getting a blast - a blast that often
smells like skunk alone, untainted by scents from the orchard or a
tarmac outside a Delta terminal.

This prevalence is bound to magnify. The state's health commissioner
recently recommended legalizing the drug, and mayor Bill de Blasio
quickly followed with an announcement that the city would now forego
arresting most people for smoking pot and hand out tickets instead.
Many other states have already legalized recreational marijuana use,
and Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Andrew M. Cuomo in the
Democratic primary for governor, has made the issue a key element of
her platform, framing it as an essential means of beginning to redress
the dreadful racial inequities in the criminal justice system.

It may be that the movement to legalize marijuana eventually morphs
into a movement to encourage people to smoke less of it. The grounds
might be "stench nuisance,'' a term applied to a cause taken up by
reformers in the mid-19th century who created olfactory maps of New
York City that identified health threats that were then, ultimately,
targeted. Already some research in rats has shown that exposure to
secondhand smoke generated from marijuana affects the arteries in ways
similar to tobacco smoke. At some point, it is easy to imagine that
mothers of 3-year olds will rise up against the perceived tyranny of
skunk weed over the stroller.

It is equally conceivable that neighborhood groups in stodgy places
will demand that people limit their sidewalk smoking to liquid pot and
odorless vape pens, or if they cannot afford them, the "doob tubes"
popular among high school students. These devices, a website devoted
to stoner enthusiasms tells us, "make the smell of weed turn into the
smell of fresh laundry." They are fabricated by stuffing "a toilet
paper or paper towel roll with dryer sheets or fabric lightly soaked
in Febreze." Smoke is exhaled into it. It is when the city begins to
smell like Febreze that we will have reached peak, immiserating