NOT-SO-SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Odors associated with flowering cannabis plants become a source of concern for some living near commercial farms.
They call it fresh skunk, the odor cloud or sometimes just the stink.
Mike Wondolowski often finds himself in the middle of it. He may be on the chaise lounge on his patio, at his computer in the house, or tending to his orange and lemon trees in the garden when the powerful, nauseating stench descends on him.
Wondolowski lives a half-mile away from greenhouses that were originally built to grow daisies and chrysanthemums but now house thousands of marijuana plants, part of a booming – and pungent – business seeking to cash in on recreational cannabis, which has been legal in California since January.
“If someone is saying, ‘Is it really that bad?’ I’ll go find a bunch of skunks and every evening I’ll put them outside your window,” Wondolowski said. “It’s just brutal.”
When Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, there were debates about driving under the influence and keeping it away from children. But lawmakers did not anticipate the uproar that would be generated by the funk of millions of flowering cannabis plants.
As a result of the stench, residents in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, are suing to ban cannabis operations from their neighborhoods. Mendocino County, farther north, recently created zones banning can- nabis cultivation – the sheriff’s deputy there says the stink is the No. 1 complaint.
In Santa Barbara County, cannabis growers confronting the rage of neighbors are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars installing odorcontrol systems that were designed for garbage dumps.
The smell from commercial cannabis farms, which brings to mind a mixture of rotting lemons and sulfur, is nothing like the wafting cloud that might hover over a Phish show, pot farm detractors say.
“It’s as if a skunk, or multiple skunks in a family, were living under our house,” said Grace Guthrie, whose home sits on the site of a former apple orchard outside the town of Sebastopol. Her neighbors grow pot commercially.
“It doesn’t dissipate,” Guthrie said. “It’s beyond anything you would imagine.”
When cannabis odors are at their peak, she and her husband, Robert, sometimes wear respirators, the kind one might put on to handle dangerous chemicals. During Labor Day weekend, relatives came to stay at the house but cut short their visit because they couldn’t stand the smell.
“I can’t be outside more than 30 minutes,” Robert Guthrie said of peak odor times, when the cannabis buds are flowering and the wind sweeps the smell onto his property. “The windows are constantly closed. We are trapped inside. There’s no escape.”
After nearly one year of recreational sales in California, much of the cannabis industry remains underground. Stung by taxes and voluminous paperwork, only around 5 percent of marijuana farmers in the state have licenses, according to Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, a marijuana advocacy group.
Sales of legal cannabis are expected to exceed $3 billion this year, only slightly higher than medical marijuana sales from last year. Tax revenues have been lower than expected, and only about one-fifth of California cities allow sales of recreational cannabis. The dream of a fully regulated market seems years off.
The ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana passed in 2016 with a comfortable majority of 57 percent. Many of those complaining about cannabis odors say they were among those who supported it. They just don’t want it stinking up their property, they say.
“Just because you like bacon doesn’t mean you want to live next to a pig farm,” said Lynda Hopkins, a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, whose office has been inundated with complaints about the smell.
Dennis Bozanich, a Santa Barbara County official charged with cannabis implementation who has become known as the cannabis czar, says the essential oil odor control has been largely successful. But not every grower can afford to install it.