A lot of people have been wondering lately what Chicago’s going to look like once pot shops open up in the state.
Will the Magnificent Mile become the Green Mile? Will the cannabis dispensary replace the corner Starbucks? Will buses full of jolly cannabis tourists roll around town alongside the gangster and architecture tours?
Valid questions. But here’s an equally pressing one: What’s Chicago going to smell like?
When I moved to Chicago, the city had a unique aroma, one that was variously attributed to stockyard sewage, steel mill emissions and the odor of the legendarily stinky wild onion, the “checagou,” that supposedly gave our city its name.
Fortunately, that smelly stew — imagine rotten eggs mixed with blood, feces and a dollop of garlic — has vanished on the winds of history. Less fortunately, a new smell has blown in on the winds of change, and that’s the smell of weed.
By weed I don’t mean the odiferous wild onion. I mean that thing called pot, cannabis, marijuana, Mary Jane, reefer. In the past few months, the smell seems to be everywhere even though smoking it isn’t even legal yet.
I’ve smelled it on train platforms and sidewalks, in stores and a couple of times in restaurants, and it’s bound to get more prevalent.
When I started detecting the eau de Chicago cannabis fragrance several months ago, I thought I might be imagining it. I’m more sensitive to smells than many people. In fact, an editor of mine, noticing that I often described smells when I wrote, once told me I reported with my nose.
But I’ve been asking around and other people say they’ve noticed the increase too, a function, no doubt, of the fact that legal weed is on the way. Hey, why not start now?
“I work just outside the Loop and live in River North and the scent overwhelms the chocolate smell from Blommer’s chocolate factory,” says one man.
It’s common enough, reports another friend, that when his 8-year-old son smelled it and wondered what it was, his 13-year-old daughter was able to explain.
“Innocence lost,” he says. “I’m sure they probably feel like it’s normal. Also, it’s been a long time since the smell of it made me think, ‘well, alll riiiiight!’ It’s like hearing party noises through the apartment wall.”
Some people enjoy the whiffs of weed here, there and everywhere.
“I don’t like to smoke pot,” says one friend, “but I actually like the smell. Is that weird?”
No weirder, I suppose, than liking the smell of bacon even if you don’t like bacon.
“I love it,” says another. She did note, however, that the prevalence of weed smell “diminishes the cool factor.”
A woman who lives in the South Loop calls the smell there “pervasive.”
“I find it amusing,” she says, “but I also feel sad that so many people don’t want to be fully engaged with their environment.”
So what does weed smell like?
It’s variously described as piney, musty or faintly foul, perhaps with notes of lemon grass, fire or wood. One of the most common descriptions is skunky.
“Super-skunky these days,” says a woman who is not a fan of super-skunky.
A lot of people don’t like the smell of smoke, period, whether it’s cigarette smoke, barbecue smoke or weed smoke.
“I’m sensitive to smoke of all kinds,” says a friend who lives in California, “and it’s become a problem for me here. On hot nights I have to close up my home rather than use the breeze to cool it down. It has created some bad feelings for me, toward my neighbors, I’m sorry to say.”
The smell of weed in Chicago and its environs may be growing, but it’s hardly brand-new.
A man who rides a motorcycle to and from his job in the West Loop says he has noticed for a long time “that people enjoy a little smoke on their ride home from work.”
Does it worry him to be on the road with potentially impaired riders?
“Yes, definitely,” he said. “The smells become ‘avoid me’ signposts.”
One consequence of the growth of legal weed is that marijuana breathalyzers are on the way, part of the effort to keep impaired drivers off the road.
I have no problem with the legalization of weed or with its responsible use. But in this newly aromatic age, let’s remember that smells are like noise: Do whatever you want as long as what you want doesn’t invade other people’s space.