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Denver Police Are Using a Nose Telescope to Sniff Out People's Weed

Denver is one of a handful of cities with a new odor ordinance. To help with detect the smell of weed, the Denver police department bought themselves the awkwardly named, high-tech, futuristic, “Nasal Ranger” scent-o-scope, designed to help the user...

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Can you smell the sweet, pungent perfume of legalized marijuana over the horizon? On November 6, 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington passed Amendment 64 and Initiative 502, respectively, which allowed marijuana to be produced, sold, and consumed by adults 21 and older, regulated like alcohol and tobacco. For pot smokers across the country, this was a huge get, paving the way for an increase in legalization across the country, and now that the related legislation has been reviewed and implemented, hundreds of dispensaries across both states are scheduled to open on January 1, 2014. However, one of the new mandates being upheld in Denver, Colorado, is aimed at the unexpected, yet most identifiable part of the process: the sticky-icky, funky-skunky smell of some dank-ass weed.


Denver is one of a handful of cities with a new odor ordinance, which ACLU lawyer Mark Silverstein called a "tremendous overreach, ill-advised, unnecessary and unconstitutional," carrying a hefty $2,000 fine for smelly violators. The number of marijuana-based odor complaints in Colorado doubled from 7 in 2010 to 16 in 2012, and that number will undoubtedly continue to climb next year when retail marijuana becomes widely available, although the current crop of complaints comes from the wafting scent of grow-ops and not from smokers themselves. The regulatory concept is still tricky; I mean, how do you qualify the stink of any given area? Hot-box a station wagon in the middle of the summer and to the participants, the smell becomes undetectable after a few minutes, but get into your car the next morning and it smells like one of Wiz Khalifa’s dumps. To help with detection, the Denver police department bought themselves the awkwardly named, high-tech, futuristic, “Nasal Ranger” scent-o-scope, designed to help the user detect odor amounts.

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The device, also called an olfactometer, looks like an elongated telescope/respirator/megaphone for your nose, and although their website is flooded with jargon like “dilution ratios," “traceable calibration," and “odor mapping," it's pretty clear that this isn't a particularly impressive piece of equipment at all. It's less of a measuring instrument and more of a tube with varying sized holes and two filters at the end. The premise is that by inhaling, a certain ratio of the air you receive will be charcoal filtered and clean, and some will be straight from the surrounding air, thereby allowing the user to see at what level the scent they're smelling is detectable. Right off the bat, it seems like abandoning the device altogether and using the nose God gave you might be an easier method of figuring out if there's a disruptive amount odor in the air, and since the real measurement is still based on the smelling skills of the cop with the Nasal Ranger, there’s no real reliability or standard on which to base a fine or arrest.


With a price point of about $1,500 for the Nasal Ranger, along with one of one of three training courses offered by the manufacturer, St. Croix Sensory, the department could be looking at spending up to $3,500 per device for officers to take it out on the field and verify any particularly pungent weed farms, along a paid subscription for their patented Odor Track’r Program, which allows the user to store odor inspection details along GPS coordinates to display a graphical representation of the intensity of the smell on Google Earth. Still, all this new tech seems like a cover for its baseline potential ineffectiveness coupled with a high cost for what is essentially a judgment call in the end.

Futurama's "smell-o-scope". Screencap via

Ben Siller, whose name is impossible to read as anything other than the name of the guy from Zoolander, is an investigator with the Denver Department of Environmental Health. He told the Denver Post that the current ratio of gross-to-clean air for an odor to be illegal is at least 7:1, that is, still detectable when mixed with seven volumes of clean air, although according to Siller, nobody has been prosecuted under this ordinance since 1994. However, in 2012 a dog food company was fined $500 by the DEH for not properly venting their smelly factory, and in turn the company sued the city for trying to turn an industrial area into a residential area. Both the fine and the lawsuit were dropped, so, yeah technically nobody has been fined since 1994, but not for lack of trying. And even though the Nasal Ranger is being used in Denver where the vibe around marijuana has been seriously relaxed, there are less forgiving parts of the country where this could be used instead of having to rely on dogs to falsely identify suspicious smells. I can just imagine sitting at a traffic stop in Dallas staring at the end of the long, white, plastic tube as a grinning cop tells me that the odor of “that stinkin’ devil’s lettuce” is detectable at a 10:1 level.


In October, the Denver City Council proposed a list of rules concerning the use of marijuana, one of which could potentially make it a crime to have the smell of pot wafting into public from inside a private residence, over a backyard fence or through air ducts. The local outcry over the distinction between smoking in “public” and smoking “openly” means that the regulations will likely be scaled back before the new laws go live. Council President Mary Beth Susman told the Denver Post, "It's hard to legislate odor. The strength that is required to register on the Nasal Ranger is something we need to look at.” She added “I also wonder if people will get used to the smell and the dislike of it now may change over time."


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