You are here

'Dead skunk' stench from marijuana farms outrages Californians

Sonoma County residents are suing to ban cannabis operations from their neighbourhoods

Robert Guthrie wears his respirator as he peers over a barrier at the marijuana farm next to his home in Sebastopol. When Californians voted to legalise recreational marijuana in 2016, lawmakers did not anticipate the uproar that would be generated by the funk of millions of flowering cannabis plants.

Carpinteria, California

THEY call it fresh skunk, the odour cloud or sometimes just the stink.

Mike Wondolowski often finds himself in the middle of it. He may be on the chaise longue 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.

He lives 0.8 km 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.

Market voices on:

"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," he said. "It's just brutal."

When Californians voted to legalise 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 neighbourhoods. Mendocino County, farther north, recently created zones banning cannabis cultivation - the sheriff's deputy there said that the stink is the No 1 complaint.

In Santa Barbara County, cannabis growers confronting the rage of neighbours are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars installing odour-control systems that were designed for garbage dumps.

The smell from commercial cannabis farms, which brings to mind a mixture of rotting lemons and sulphur, is nothing like the wafting cloud that might hover over a Phish show, pot farm detractors said.

"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 neighbours grow pot commercially. "It doesn't dissipate," she added. "It's beyond anything you would imagine."

"I can't be outside more than 30 minutes," Robert Guthrie said of peak odour 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 per cent of marijuana farmers in the state have licences, according to Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, a marijuana advocacy group.

Sales of legal cannabis are expected to exceed US$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 legalising recreational marijuana passed in 2016 with a comfortable majority of 57 per cent. Many of those complaining about cannabis odours said that they were among those who supported it. They just do not want it stinking up their property, they said.

"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.

Of the more than 730 complaints that Sonoma County has received about cannabis this year, around 65 per cent are related to odour, according to Tim Ricard, the county's cannabis programme manager.

"There's been a tremendous amount of tension in the community," said Ms Hopkins, the Sonoma supervisor. "If I had to name an ice-cream flavour for cannabis implementation, it would definitely be rocky road."

Cannabis executives recognise that pot grows can be odorous but said that their industry is no different from others that produce smells. "You have a smell issue that sometimes can't be completely mitigated," said Dennis Hunter, a co-founder of CannaCraft, a large marijuana business based in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. "But we have dairy farms here in the area or crush season for the vineyards - there's agricultural crops, and a lot of them have smells."

Britt Christiansen, a registered nurse who lives among the dairy farms of Sonoma County, acknowledged that her neighbourhood smells of manure, known locally as the Sonoma aroma. But she said that she made the choice to live next to a dairy farm and prefers that smell to the odour that drifted over from the marijuana farm next door to her house.

"We opened the door and the smell kicked us in the face," she said. Her neighbours banded together in October and sued the operators of the pot business; the case is ongoing. NYTIMES