For Toronto condo developer Options for Homes, the term “family friendly” has a very specific meaning—no smoking or growing weed.
The non-profit developer is currently building a 22-storey tower north of downtown called The Humber, named after the river nearby it. When completed it is billing itself as the first smoke-free condo in the Greater Toronto Area.
While in the planning stages, Options surveyed 7,000 of its potential purchasers about a smoke-less policy—75 percent said they would be more likely to buy a condo in a smoke-free building, meaning a ban on smoking both weed and tobacco. But Options decided on a compromise—it will allow vaping cannabis and nicotine in its suites, but not in common areas.
While Canada legalized weed last October, the scent of cannabis—sometimes compared to that of a skunk’s spray—isn’t one that everyone is comfortable with yet. A recent survey by Buzzfeed News and others found that 57 percent of Canadians either dislike or hate the smell of weed in public, while 51 percent of Americans characterized it as a problem. While the issue may sound trivial, it can have serious implications on policies around housing, public consumption, and even large-scale cannabis production sites.
Mary Pattison, Options for Homes’ director of sales and marketing, told VICE the company wanted to strike a balance between mitigating the smoke and odour that comes from weed and allowing people to partake in a legal activity. Vaping hardly has any smoke, she said, and the smell dissipates fast while people who actually want to smoke can go to the nearby park.
“We don’t want to be making a judgement on a particular lifestyle. This is not about cannabis, this is about smoke in general.”
However Pattison said the ban on growing was thrown in because of the “negative connotation” around growing weed and the odour that comes with it, noting that condo boards have the right to change policies based on what homeowners decide.
“Disaster” for landlords
From a landlord’s perspective, legalization has been “a disaster,” according to William Blake.
Blake, a member of the Ontario Landlords Association who owns more than 100 units, said landlords are in a bit of a bind because they cannot retroactively change a lease to include a ban on cannabis. He said he wished the government had taken some sort of action, either by allowing landlords to implement retroactive weed smoking bans, or by giving them a two-year grace period to get used to legalization before allowing tenants to smoke weed in their units.
Rules vary across the country—Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia have allowed landlords to alter signed leases with new restrictions around growing and smoking weed. Manitoba and Quebec both have outright bans on personal cultivation. In BC, renters can’t smoke weed if their leases ban tobacco smoke, and landlords were able to add growing restrictions. Alberta has also allowed landlords and condo operators to ban cannabis, stipulating that those rules must be set out in the lease or condo bylaws.
And rest assured, those bans are happening. Boardwalk, the largest rental housing provider in Alberta, has banned smoking and growing weed in all of its properties—it provides 22,000 units. Residents are still allowed to smoke cigarettes.
The stench of weed is at the heart of these restrictions.
“A lot of families, they just cannot accept the smell of marijuana,” said Blake. From curry to cat pee, there are a variety of smells one has to accept living in rental housing, but Blake says there are people who are “extremely sensitive” to weed in a way that they aren’t with other substances. For some, it’s rooted in the lingering stigma of a long-prohibited substance.
“They’re actually quite upset and worried about their children,” Blake said.
But another issue for landlords is the cleanup, according to Blake, who said he once paid $5,000 to get the smell of weed out of a unit. The issue is apparently blowing up the Ontario Landlords Association’s online forum, with some landlords saying it’s causing turnover because tenants who don’t want to deal with the smell of weed are vacating their apartments.
Karen Andrews, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, is skeptical of several of Blake’s claims.
“I certainly have not heard that people are vacating their apartments because we have a rental crisis,” she said, noting that if people do leave their apartments landlords are free to jack up the rent.
As for the idea that weed smoke damages a unit or even hurts the resale value of a property like a condo, Andrews said it amounts to a “moral panic.” She said there are also mechanisms in place to allow for landlords to pass on the charges for a costly cleanup to the renter.
“You can have a fire and still re-rent the unit and landlords know this, they just don’t want to be put to the extra trouble.”
Andrews said there are many solutions that don’t require an all out ban. Simply talking to tenants or having them work things out amongst themselves is one—for example, asking your neighbour to smoke weed on their balcony, or refrain from smoking weed in their suite at certain times of the day.
She also said she believes developers should be building better units that are smell-proof, because the technology exists.
As for a ban on growing, Andrews said it amounts to hysteria. On a recent consultation, Andrews said a home insurance assessor said four weed plants might as well be four orchids.
“(Landlords) just don’t like the fact that if you have four plants, which is legal, you might start cultivating it and smoking it at home.”
Fears over growing
Travis Lane has been growing weed for more than 20 years. He said hiding the smell of growing weed isn’t hard.
“We’ve been able to hide illicit grows from the police and our neighbours for 20 years,” says Lane, who founded Levity Solutions, an organic cannabis growing consultation firm.
Lane said part of living in a society is dealing with smells, not all of which are pleasant.
While he believes in a property owner’s right to decide what activities take place on their land, he also said the bans are likely to disproportionately impact people living with disabilities, those who are homeless or in low-income housing, and people of colour—and those are the people more likely to face enforcement.
Toronto activist Desmond Cole recently visited a friend in Halifax and stayed at her apartment building. Within a day, Cole, who is black, told VICE the building’s manager knocked on his friend’s door while he was at home alone to inform him “someone is complaining they can smell weed coming from this apartment.”
Cole had not been smoking weed, and said he asked the manager if he was accusing him of doing so. The man denied it, Cole said, but asked him to step into the hallway to smell it. Instead Cole, swung the apartment door open wider, allowing the building manager to see that there was no smoke inside, nor any scent of weed coming from it.
“It’s pathetic,” said Cole. The friend he was staying with, El Jones, told VICE she has twice accused of having the smell of weed coming from her apartment. She doesn’t smoke weed.
“This is how black people get killed,” said Cole. “By non-issues and non-infractions like this resulting in the police being called, resulting in us getting kicked out of our apartment, resulting in us getting beat up by security.”
On a bigger scale, licensed producers are also dealing with mitigating the scent that accompanies massive legal grows.
Both Canopy Growth Corp and Aurora Cannabis have faced complaints. According to the Globe and Mail, there have been more than 250 complaints in the last year over the smell coming from Canopy’s 1.3 million-square-foot Aldergrove, BC site.
Cam Battley, chief corporate officer at Aurora, said the LP has received a small number of compaints over the last couple of months in relation to Aurora Sky, an 800,000-square-foot grow near the Edmonton airport.
He told VICE the smell is “novel” and it’s important to explain to people that they’re smelling terpenes, which won’t have any health impact or cause impairment.
Battley said the company is investing in “state of the art” smell mitigation technology, including a large number of carbon filters. He said Aurora is able to be effective in reducing the odour of weed because its cultivation takes place indoors. He also pointed out it’s easier to control smell when growing in purpose-built facilities as opposed to retrofitted greenhouses. (Canopy’s Aldergrove grow is retrofitted.)
“I want to see the advent of legal cannabis in Canada goes as smoothly as possible and I’ve always been really sensitive to the fact that everyone is not on the same page yet,” Battley said. “I feel like we have to respect the concerns… of those who aren’t there yet.”