Life

Up in Smoke

How “weed smell” became a potent boogeyman of American decline.

A man smokes a joint and clouds of smoke surround his head.
Marijuana enthusiasts celebrate 4/20 in Washington Square Park on April 20, 2022, in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Last Friday at a press conference, New York Mayor Eric Adams answered a New York Post reporter’s question about the record-breaking number of odor complaints placed with New York City’s 311 service so far this year. “The number one thing I smell right now is pot. It’s like everyone’s smoking a joint now,” Adams said, making his answer into a bit of a joke.

It turned out most of those calls were about idling vehicles. That’s a smell that actually indicates danger, and is more analogous to the types of odors that New Yorkers, and residents of other American cities, used to flag for public officials in the bad old days of the 19th century, when sewage and industrial effluvia were everywhere.

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But Adams’ deflection to weed smoke was telling. The smell of weed in a city has come to stand in for a lot, to a lot of people. In January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, when asked about marijuana legalization at a press conference, “It smells so putrid.” He added: “I think a lot of those other areas that have done it have ended up regretting it. I could not believe the pungent odor that you would see in some of these places, and I don’t want to see that here. I want people to be able to breathe freely.”

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If you search “smells like weed” in listings for New York or L.A., you find pages of apartment buildings and hotels dinged for the odor: “Our hallway constantly smells like weed,” wrote one L.A. apartment dweller. “Always smells like weed through the windows, in the atrium, in the garage,” complained another. “Getting woken up at night to weed smell. Paying a lot of money to feel like you’re living in a weed shop.” “My apartment fills up with marijuana smoke all the time at all hours. My laundry closet perpetually smells like weed,” wrote a third renter in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. Spare a thought for the property managers tasked with handling these complaints, in a world where weed is legal.

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Weed smell has taken up a prime place in the array of signifiers certain people invoke when describing city life in 2022. Cities, they say, are full of unhoused people, feces on the streets, trash, and, well, weed smell. Many of these complaints—subtly, or not-so-subtly—invoke the racist beliefs about who smokes weed that helped drive harsh anti-marijuana laws in the first place. (In truth, white people smoke at about the same rates as Black people.) Here’s a description of New York, from a Twitter user: “The city now a days is gross, it all smells like weed and crawling with homeless people and criminals.” (Here’s a similar one about Seattle.) Or take British journalist Eve Simmons’ recent Daily Mail piece describing California’s legalization of weed as “a public health disaster” (“totally unwoke, I know, but facts are facts,” she snarked in a thread), which ended in a scene set in Los Angeles. Simmons saw, as she records it, “ten abandoned cars at the side of the road” outside of Compton, and “dishevelled men” wandering on the street and leaning out of the cars’ windows. “But it isn’t the sight that overwhelms me,” she writes, “it is the smell of weed. I roll up the windows and feel relieved to be heading back to good, old sensible Britain in the morning.”

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We are also in between times: Some people are coming along with the idea that weed could become like alcohol, taking up a more regular place in our lives; others are not there, or are seizing on weed smell as another signifier of difference between urban and suburban or rural Americans—blue and red, MAGA and not. This, despite the fact that marijuana legalization, while still more popular with Democratic than Republican voters, is not total anathema to Republicans who have responded to surveys asking about the topic. The issue is in fact less polarizing than many other social questions that red and blue voters fight over. But we squabble in five senses these days, bickering over what we eat, what we drive, what we enjoy doing on the weekends. Why not fight over a smell, too?

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For some older people, blue or red, it may be genuinely strange to smell weed in a non-illicit context. The culture is changing around them. Weed smell used to be an evergreen excuse for cops to search cars; now you catch a whiff in hospital stairwells, public libraries, your Uber, anywhere. In a gently bemused 2019 column, the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Schmich, who is Boomer-aged, remembered Chicago smelling like “rotten eggs mixed with blood, feces, and a dollop of garlic” when she moved there, a smell that has “vanished on the winds of history.” That was good, she wrote, but the replacement was not so great: “A new smell has blown in on the winds of change, and that’s the smell of weed.” Schmich quoted a friend who reported that “when his 8-year-old son smelled it and wondered what it was, his 13-year-old daughter was able to explain.” This friend said to her: “Innocence lost. I’m sure they probably feel like it’s normal.”

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The idea that kids might be smelling weed—not smoking it, not inhaling its second-hand smoke (which isn’t great for them), just whiffing its recently combusted terpenes in an outdoor setting, like I used to catch the odor of gin and Chardonnay at my parents’ summer cocktail parties—comes up often in this discourse. “Two days ago I was outside a children’s gymnastics centre watching my 2 y/o niece do a class and the smell of weed was stifling,” Simmons said in introducing her piece online. People had fun clowning on her for that, but for some, this is a powerful thought: that unhinged marijuana users are turning the whole wide world into a party, and making children into their unwitting guests. The politics of this implication—in a time when the idea of “grooming” is roaring back as a social cudgel—mean Simmons doesn’t need to hit it too hard to make her point.

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For a long time, the smell of weed was something private, thrilling. It was the signal to a stoner that, oh yes, it was on—a good smell, evoking strong and pleasant memories of past sessions with friends long gone. To people who didn’t partake, to smell it was to smell another world. I recently rewatched the Onion’s 2013 video “Back of Library Smells like Weed,” a faux-local news report in which an off-screen reporter interviews a trio of women who are identified as “Library Ladies,” and who are extremely excited—positively a-twitter—about what they smelled. One knew what it was, but insists, “It’s not like I’m Cheech and Chong or anything!” To make a positive ID, another calls her husband, the sheriff, who calls the high school’s ceramics teacher, who “lived in Seattle for a few months in the ’ 70s.” This man, in a mustache and an apron, enters the scene, stands around, then says, “Yep, that’s weed.”

The smell is something different now. That whole social drama around weed smell—whiffing it, hiding it, getting busted for it—is becoming a thing of the past. But a whole lot of people aren’t ready to let go.

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