Mark Schaefer: The smell of cannabis
January 30, 2018
Would a rose by another name smell so sweet? As it turns out, that depends on a complex variety of factors. And when it comes to the smell of cannabis in Nevada County, the complexity compounds.
As the supervisors review the Community Advisory Group's recommendations for a new cannabis ordinance, odor of the plant will certainly be a topic in the forefront of their minds. Odor may be the number one complaint of opponents of commercial cannabis in the county, even above concerns about youth access.
Tackling the smell issue will not be simple, but it is important that we be honest and realistic about its significance. Viewing cannabis odor as a simple "good smell/bad/smell" dilemma is not realistic.
The impact of the flowering cannabis plant on someone's sense of smell is subject to several variables:
... the smell of a rose is in the nose of the beholder.
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What stage of growth is the plant in? Cannabis is generally grown outdoors for 16 to 18 weeks. For the first eight to 10 weeks of the plant's life, there is no odor. Cannabis only gives off an odor at the end stage of a seven to 10 week flowering process. As the flowering progresses, the odor gets progressively stronger. At what stage the odor is strong enough to travel by air to neighboring properties will vary, but generally, there will only be three to five weeks of odor.
What time of day is it? Cannabis flowers smell more at dawn and dusk than any other time of the day. How far the smell will travel depends on the time of day.
What way is the wind blowing? The smell of cannabis travels according to the direction of the wind. The days or even hours that may impact a neighbor will vary.
How large is the garden? The more plants, the higher concentration of odor. This variable can be addressed by relegating large gardens to larger parcels, further from neighbors.
What strains are being grown? Different strains of cannabis have different levels of odor-producing substances called terpenes. Cannabis plants have the same terpenes found in a variety of other plants such as citrus, hops, pine and scented flowers. Linalool, often found in cannabis, is also what gives lavender its smell. Many cleaning products have lavender in them. Pinene can be found in all the pine trees that sprinkle Nevada County. Limonene, like it sounds, is in citrus fruits on the side of someone's cocktail glass or in a fruit bowl in a kitchen. The smell of terpenes in cannabis are around us every day, yet we may identify the smell differently when it is associated with cannabis. Terpenes have also been found to be an important part of the medicinal benefits of the plant just as they are in other herbal and aroma therapies.
Who is doing the smelling? Research shows that there is an exceptionally short path (just a few synapses) from the olfactory receptors in the nose to the emotion and memory centers of the brain. In experiments, the same smell was labeled with a positive qualifier and a negative qualifier. Consistently, people liked it when the label was positive and disliked it when the label was negative. ("Ah Sweet Skunk! Why We Like or Dislike What We Smell," Cerebrum, 2001). If we have an emotional reason to dislike a smell the odds are higher we will find that smell offensive. So, another variable influencing how a person smells the plant is how they feel about the idea of the plant. Emotional bias can inform us.
I am not suggesting that we should discount the concerns of those people who are offended by the smell of the plant, even if it is for a short amount of time and periodically, or even if their offense is emotionally based.
When we are considering garden sizes and setbacks in the new ordinance, we need to strike a balance between the impact on neighbors and the need to reduce constraints on farmers seeking to transition into legitimate businesses.
In conclusion, the smell of a rose is in the nose of the beholder.
Mark Schaefer lives in Penn Valley.
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