I support marijuana legalization, but I wish pot smokers would stop stinking up the sidewalks.
I’m not alone. In places where using marijuana no longer carries the threat of a jail sentence, the pungent odor of ganja is increasingly infiltrating daily life — and annoying nonsmokers. “It used to be kind of neat smelling pot occasionally on a weekend, but now Toronto smells like weed all the time,” complains writer Liza Herz, who says she supports legalization.
Like cigarette smokers, marijuana smokers get used to the smell and don’t notice how loathsome it can be to those who don’t share their habits.
Unlike cigarette smokers, however, pot smokers haven’t yet developed strong norms about not bothering the neighbors.
“The worst is that new neighbors in the house behind me smoke all the time, and it wafts into my yard and bedroom like a frightened skunk,” says Jessica Lee, a financial professional in Washington, D.C., who says she “used to be for legalization” but changed her mind after seeing so many young people smoking. Once the threat of police sanctions disappears, many people feel free to light up without considering the spillover effects.
“The smell makes my stomach churn a little, so I even hold my breath when I have to walk by a dispensary,” says Joe Inglish, a software engineer in Portland, Ore., who describes himself as “decidedly pro-legalization.” His state supposedly bans public smoking, but observes fellow resident Nancy Rommelmann, “Portland reeks.”
If the marijuana-legalization movement faces an effective backlash, it’s likely to come from smoke-averse citizens rather than traditional drug warriors. “I don’t care at all what one does in their private space, but when it invades and endangers my health and the health of others — bad, bad, bad!” says Manhattan makeup artist Maria Verel. She complains that the many construction workers in her neighborhood smoke so much pot on their lunch breaks that “it’s like walking through an opium den.”
Those workers could still be arrested under the state’s law against publicly displaying or smoking pot, which is subject to decidedly selective enforcement. Pointing to the law’s disparate racial effects, The New York Times recently opined against it. “The state missed an opportunity to fix this problem five years ago when a bill that would have made public display of marijuana an offense similar to a traffic violation — rather than a crime — died in the Legislature,” the editors argued.
The law is intrusive and unjust, but maybe the reason it’s still on the books is that New Yorkers who don’t smoke marijuana don’t want to live with the fumes. “In New York City, after all, you can’t legally smoke a tobacco cigarette in a bar, a restaurant, a movie theater, a subway train or platform, a public park, or on a beach,” wrote Ira Stoll in response to the Times. “Maybe people don’t want other people smoking marijuana everywhere, either.”
Threatening criminal prosecution, which can ruin someone’s life, is a terrible substitute for establishing norms of politeness. But nonsmokers make up the majority of voters, and politicians listen to them. If marijuana fans want to keep their drug of choice legal, and extend that legality to new locales, they need to adopt more considerate consumption methods — vaping, gummies and brownies come to mind — or at least keep in mind that smoke has to go somewhere, and not everyone enjoys the aroma.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, The New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”