Will The Entire City Smell Like Pot? Your Legal Weed Questions Answered

An illustration of a nose smelling a cloud of smoke vaguely shaped like the Chicago skyline
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
An illustration of a nose smelling a cloud of smoke vaguely shaped like the Chicago skyline
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

Will The Entire City Smell Like Pot? Your Legal Weed Questions Answered

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

In Denver, Colo., there’s a man named Tim Allen whose full-time job is to investigate marijuana odor complaints.

He said the odor is unmistakable: skunky, earthy, sometimes tangy — and after Denver legalized pot five years ago, residents started bringing their complaints about that smell to city hall by the dozen.

So with the plant becoming legal in Illinois, WBEZ reader Lauren Salas was wondering: “Pot has such a distinctive smell — I wonder if everything’s going to smell like that?”

We posed her question to experts in Denver and Illinois officials. Here’s why they said Illinoisans probably won’t need to worry about the stink.

A lesson from Denver: most complaints come from grow centers

Even if it makes her feel like “kind of a square,” Salas is smart to ask that question, said Denver Post marijuana reporter Jon Murray. Odor complaints were a huge issue after legalization in Denver — enough that Allen’s odor investigation job pivoted full-time to marijuana complaints.

Complaints mostly came from residents living around grow centers, which weren’t required to have any sort of odor mitigation systems, Murray and Allen said. City officials imposed stricter regulations on cultivation sites in 2016.

All of Illinois’ grow centers currently have odor mitigation systems, even though it’s not required by law, said Krista Lisser, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which regulates the state’s marijuana growers.

But she said the department could require odor mitigation systems in the future.

Illinois weed shops are required by state law to mitigate odor and to sell marijuana in odor-proof, child-resistant containers.

There’s also the matter of density. Illinois currently has 20 grow centers throughout the state — Denver alone has 250. The state of Illinois will issue 40 more grow licenses later next year.

Secondhand smoke likely won’t be a bigger issue than it already is

While most odor complaints in Denver are lodged at marijuana companies, Allen is occasionally called in to try to trace the smell back to a non-compliant street smoker.

But experts say they don’t expect to see a huge increase in secondhand smoke with the legalization of recreational weed.

“The vast majority of the business is going to come from people who are already using cannabis,” said Eli McVey, a researcher at Marijuana Business Daily. “They’re going to move from the black market into the regulated market.”

Public consumption is illegal in both Colorado and Illinois.

And if you’re worried about a “contact high” or that you’ll fail a drug test by breathing in secondhand marijuana smoke, it’s highly unlikely.

What to do if the smell is overwhelming in Chicago

A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Public Health said the city is still working through its policy for responding to cannabis complaints — no word on whether Chicago will employ a full time marijuana nose like Denver.

But the department said it will investigate any odor complaints, particularly associated with businesses and industry. Residents should call 311 with their complaints..

The state of Illinois said complaints about overpowering odor emanating from marijuana cultivation sites should be directed to the Department of Agriculture.

The department has so far fielded just two marijuana-related odor complaints since medical marijuana hit the market in 2015.

Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.