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My neighbor's pot garden smells like a Wookiee's armpit. What can I do about it?

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 5, 2015

This week we won't start off with a particular reader's question as we usually do. In the past several weeks, we've received a few inquiries about the same topic: What recourse is there if someone's home grow smells up the neighborhood or condo building to the point it becomes a nuisance to others?

There's a flip-side to that, too. What can home growers do to avoid such a hassle?

Judging just from the Highly Informed inbox, the smell of flowering cannabis may be more noticeable lately, but only slightly. Maybe the recent spate of inquiries have come because Alaska Permanent Fund dividends just dropped, but maybe there are simply more brand-new or beginning home gardeners out there since legalization day. Most of the questions arose from apartment building conflicts, but someone in Anchorage even forwarded a message thread from the Rogers Park community message board in which a few neighbors were discussing what to do about a strong, skunky aroma on one particular street in the neighborhood's northern section.

That thread appeared to end when one person made a very neighborly suggestion: taping a note to the suspected front door saying that their home garden is delivering many free sniffs, and that not everyone is happy about it.

So, just in case those neighbors didn't follow through with a note, here's a news flash to whoever has flowering cannabis in Rogers Park: Your neighbors know. Some of them said they don't mind, but others objected and wondered what could be done about it. Use that knowledge however you choose.

Read more Highly Informed: Seeking answers to Alaska's cannabis questions

As we learned in a February installment of Highly Informed, in Anchorage (the point of origin for all of the questions we received on this present topic) there are city codes that provide an avenue for nuisance complaints based on smell or odor.

People are free to make complaints, and depending on the situation, the city may or may not be able to resolve the situation. But in my opinion, that process should be reserved for the most intractable situations. Being neighbors with other people sometimes means putting up with unfortunate odors, like cooking fumes, springtime dog waste and so on, but it also means being close enough to talk to each other, one-on-one or in groups. Similar environmental annoyances have even been addressed by homeowners and condo associations, so that might also be a way to handle a disagreement like this depending on the situation.

Far be it from me to tell anyone what should or shouldn't offend their noses, or to tell anyone what to do with their own home garden, but conflicts like this don't have to happen. A home cannabis gardener may not even know odors are escaping, let alone bothering other people. And because of stigmas still in force about cannabis, or any number of other reasons, home growers may be thankful to learn they're advertising to the world and will take immediate steps against it.

Troubleshooting

Growing cannabis can be an intensely complex enterprise, but some small steps can help avoid broadcasting a home garden. Jeff Lowenfels, Alaska Dispatch News gardening columnist and author, advised in a phone interview that if any home growers find themselves in this situation, a three-point troubleshooting method should do the trick.

First, he said, check for ways air could be leaking from the growing space, things like leaky or open windows, small cracks, or gaps around or at the bottom of doors. Sealing up escape routes for odor, either to the outside or even into shared spaces in the case of condos, means making sure you're not letting air move outside the grow room except when you want it to, he said. It may go without saying, but having a good seal also means that venting exhaust directly outside or into a condo ceiling or shared wall probably wouldn't be a good idea.

Second, Lowenfels said to make sure there's enough air circulation for the growing chamber. "You always want to have good air circulation, and particularly indoors." He said that if a cannabis garden indoors doesn't have enough air circulating through, it stands an increased risk for a range of diseases and insects that will negatively affect the crop.

Heat and humidity can become a concern in a sealed space full of hot lights, and periodically pulling cool, dry air in and sending hot moist air out can help. Depending on the set-up, having new air circulating in also means the plants won't run low on CO2, which is necessary for the most important chemical process on earth, photosynthesis, and therefore happy plants. Some growers, dedicated ones usually, even use machines to supplement the CO2 in their grow chambers, Lowenfels said, because it's generally beneficial at any stage of growth.

Lowenfels also noted that while air circulation is good to have, too much of it may worsen air leakage and make scents harder to contain. So making sure the garden space has a good seal is paramount in controlling the growing atmosphere, he said.

For tips on how many cubic feet of air per minute a fan should move, millions of design ideas, and ideal rates of air exchange, Lowenfels advised searching around the Internet. There are literally thousands of message boards, social media groups, magazines, books, and websites where knowledgeable people willing to help congregate. But there is bad info out there, so do your homework. There are also garden supply places in Alaska and online that would no doubt be able to help.

Third, he mentioned odor filters. Because cannabis cultivation has been illegal for so long, and still is in many states, a great number of products are for sale, locally and online, that have been designed to conceal illegal grows. Such filtration systems use inline exhaust fans to move skunky air over activated charcoal scrubbers and then recirculate it or send it out of the growing chamber. The charcoal traps the odor molecules, and locks them away, and filters need to be periodically changed. How frequently depends a few factors, including their design and manufacture.

Filtration in action

Andrew Campbell, president of Skunkwerkz and product developer for Cheeky Monkey, businesses that he hopes to develop as part of the licensed industry, is a medical card holder who maintains a home garden to ensure access to his medicine.

Campbell's a disabled military veteran, and he didn't go into detail about his service-related medical situation, but he said that medical cannabis definitely changed his life for the better.

He said of his choice to grow at home, "I felt the best way to get my medicine was to grow it myself."

In his own garden area, when it comes to odor, he employs a double filtration system. "I do have a filtration set up, I just do that not because I have to, but because I respect that not everyone enjoys the smell like I do."

Campbell's set-up features two main parts: One fan and carbon filter combo that scrubs air and dumps it right back into the same room, and another fan and filter that scrub air again and vent it outside the room. He vents the latter fan into the house rather than outside for energy efficiency reasons, but he said it could be safely vented outside if conserving energy weren't a concern.

Because some family members he lives with are sensitive to the smell of cannabis, he said he also places a bucket of Ona, an odor-absorbing gel, near the air intake of his furnace. That way, any odors that may escape his growing area are squashed pretty quickly. But he warned that the product shouldn't be used inside the grow room because it will actually drain the scent molecules from the plants, leaving unscented herb. Carbon filters don't have that effect.

If you're just starting out a grow, and your plants haven't started blooming yet, you have some time to prepare. Campbell said that the aroma usually begins to get noticeable about 2 to 4 weeks into the flowering stage, and intensifies as the plant matures toward harvest.

But cannabis flowers don't all smell the same. Lowenfels said that some strains have a more powerfully skunky aroma than others. Beyond that, they have a wide variety of scent profiles, and plenty of them may not be as offensive as the business end of a polecat.

Summing up, there are plenty of air management options, including DIY versions, for home growers who want to keep even the dankest gardens on the DL, and keep a healthy garden environment. Given that legal consequences have been so great for cannabis cultivation for so long in the U.S., there is a wide range of readily available atmospheric control options, scalable to fit any grow space.

"Therefore your neighbor ought to be real satisfied, because they work," Lowenfels said. "Now, the question is who pays: You or the neighbor?"

Have a question about marijuana news or culture in Alaska? Send it to cannabis-north@alaskadispatch.com with "Highly Informed" in the subject line.

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