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What if my neighbors' pot smoke violates my airspace?

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

Jasmine asks Highly Informed about clean air after marijuana becomes legal in Alaska on Feb. 24:

When my new neighbors here in Eagle River smoke on their front porch (8 feet away and below my bedroom window), I can smell it in my home, which is a huge annoyance to me, a non-smoking pregnant mother of two. Will their front porch be considered "private" or "public" if they decide to smoke marijuana?

Two things are at issue here, one legal, another interpersonal. The legal question is pretty clear-cut, and in the ever-shifting world of Alaska cannabis regulation, clarity is rare enough to be cherished.

Ballot Measure 2 (which turned into Alaska Statute 17.38) prohibited public use, but did not define what "public" meant. The Anchorage Assembly, whose municipality includes Eagle River, approved a new measure clarifying that term at the end of January. Other local governments around the state have begun considering similar measures. The city of Juneau just the other day added marijuana to the city's second-hand smoke ordinances.

The new Anchorage ordinance reiterates that public use of marijuana is unlawful, then defines what a "public place" means unless a state or municipal permit is involved:

Public place means a place to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access and includes, but is not limited to, streets, highways, sidewalks, alleys, transportation facilities, parking areas, convention centers, sports arenas, schools, places of business or amusement, shopping centers, malls, parks, playgrounds, prisons, and hallways, lobbies, doorways and other portions of apartment houses and hotels not constituting rooms or apartments designed for actual residence.

That definition does not cover the front porch of a single-family home, said Anchorage Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler in an email. Unless the porch were a common area for a multi-unit building, like an apartment building's front porch, it does not qualify as a public place under the code. A typical home's front porch is considered private no matter how tight a neighborhood's lot lines are.

Wheeler, who drafted the new code, added that other codes or laws may apply in situations where the byproducts of marijuana consumption cross property lines in situations like yours, measures like health codes and public and private nuisance laws. A section of Anchorage code (AMC 15.20.020) addressing public nuisances concerns "Soot, cinders, noxious acids, fumes and gas" and prohibits some behaviors, including:

Causing or permitting the escape of such quantities of soot, cinders, noxious acids, fumes and gases in such place or manner as to be detrimental to any person or the public, endanger the health, comfort and safety of any such person or of the public, or cause or have a tendency to cause injury or damage to property or business. The escape of such matter is a public nuisance and may be summarily abated by the department.

So, manners aside, they're free to smoke on their porch, but you're free to call in a public nuisance complaint. That's the case now, legalized marijuana or not. I hope that it doesn't have to come to that, though.

Certainly you have a right to be comfortable in your own home, and annoyance is a good enough reason to bring the issue up with them. I wonder if they don't know they're bothering you, and whether they'd try to do better if they only knew. The only way to know is to ask, I suppose. And if neighbors can't talk, who can?

It might put you slightly at ease to know that even if they did smoke marijuana on their porch, it may not rise to the same level of annoyance or hazard. Usually, people do not smoke marijuana frequently throughout a day like some people do cigarettes. Every hour or so was my tobacco smoking habit before I quit (three years ago this July, I'm proud to say), but smoking that amount of marijuana in a day would be far too much for most people, even regular users.

The exposure to second-hand marijuana smoke or its odor in the way you describe will not get you or your children high, and isn't at all likely to cause anyone in your home to fail a drug test. The long-term health risks of second-hand marijuana smoke are still poorly understood, but it is certain that any kind of smoke may affect people with certain health problems. Smoking around people who are overly annoyed or put in danger by smoke, whether it's marijuana or tobacco, isn't cool.

But marijuana doesn't need to be burned to be consumed. And exhaled marijuana vapor may briefly spread a funny smell, but it generally won't have tars or byproducts of combustion. There are many aromatic components in cannabis, and not all "smoke" is smoke per se, maybe it's just an odor. Annoying, maybe, but not necessarily as harmful as smoke.

Whether it's marijuana or not, I'd urge you or anyone who feels that someone else's behavior has become a nuisance to say something. Ask them to be more considerate, or try to come to terms agreeable to both parties. Maybe they can find a better spot to smoke?

Speaking to one another about problems and being considerate of our neighbors is what we should all be doing more of anyway. But there's a fair chance that your neighbors wouldn't smoke pot on their front porch in the same rude way they do tobacco.

For a few reasons, public marijuana consumption may not be visible everywhere all of a sudden. That remains to be seen, but there will still be reasons for people to be discreet when consuming marijuana, and people will probably catch an illicit whiff now and then out in public.

Even after legalization, pot smoking will draw attention from other people, including authorities, in a way that cigarette smoking doesn't. Plenty of people won't want that attention for various reasons. People who work in some professions or industries may also not want their habits to be publicly known for fear of possible consequences. Clearly it wouldn't apply to your rather inconsiderate neighbors, but like some cigarette smokers, some marijuana smokers are careful not to bother other people who may have health problems or other reasons to keep away from smoke or strong odors.

Your neighbors may also want to avoid smoking openly so that random people in the neighborhood don't start hitting them up. Legal or not, cannabis costs money.

Depending on your neighbors' sense of humor, how about every time they annoy you with cannabis smoke, you ask them for a gram or two? Under the new rules, one adult giving another less than an ounce of marijuana will be legal. Call it a "clean air tax" maybe?

You can flush it down the toilet or down a storm drain, but your point will be made. The odds are great they'll keep it out of your airspace if you constantly tax their bag for lame behavior.

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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