With the arrival of September, medical marijuana patients are eagerly awaiting the start of harvest season — and some irate neighbors who live near pot gardens are yearning for the removal of often-smelly marijuana plants.
Ashland resident Eliza Kauder said she endured overpowering odors from her neighbor's medical marijuana garden from June through October last year.
Her neighbor abandoned his pot growing efforts for this year, but the smell of the plants is still fresh in Kauder's mind.
"It was like having a family of skunks living in our backyard," Kauder said. "It's my understanding that marijuana that's growing has a very distinctive odor. It's sometimes referred to as 'skunk weed.'"
Kauder said the odor invaded her home, making her nauseous, and could be detected from two blocks away. She had to keep her windows closed and stop hanging clothes to dry outside because of the pervasive smell.
After multiple complaints to city of Ashland officials, Kauder's neighbor was eventually cited under an Ashland law that prohibits odor nuisances. He harvested about two dozen plants he was growing for several medical marijuana patients, eliminating the odor headache for Kauder and her husband.
Other neighbors had also complained about the smell, she said.
This June, Kauder asked the Ashland City Council to require that medical marijuana gardens be set back at least 75 feet from neighbors' property lines.
Given average lot sizes in Ashland, that could effectively ban most residents from legally growing medical marijuana.
City officials haven't had time to investigate the marijuana issue and consider new regulations in time for this growing season, said Ashland City Administrator Dave Kanner.
Kauder's neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous, said last year was his first attempt at having a medical marijuana garden.
He said he didn't have an issue with the smell and the neighborhood is home to a lot of skunks, which may have contributed to odor issues. The odor nuisance citation cost him about $200, he said.
He said he opposes the idea of requiring marijuana gardens to be set back 75 feet from property lines. But he did have a word of advice for people thinking about growing the plants.
"Be aware of your neighbors and potentially consult with them first," he suggested.
Lori Duckworth — executive director of the Southern Oregon chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which is based at the Cannabis Community Center in downtown Medford — said there are hundreds of varieties of marijuana plants and they produce different smells while growing.
Some are sweet or fruity, while others are pungent, sour or smell like skunks, Duckworth said.
She said a 75-foot buffer zone might not be enough to keep odors from reaching neighbors. She said if Ashland adopted such a law, it should also require buffer zones for dog kennels, cigarette smoking and other odor-producing facilities and activities.
NORML tries to educate medical marijuana growers about how to be good neighbors. It offers growing classes as well as mediation services between growers and neighbors, Duckworth said.
"Be the kind of neighbor you would want your neighbor to be," she advised growers.
Duckworth said if growers want marijuana to be accepted by society as a medicine and an agricultural crop, they must act professionally.
Ashland city officials haven't been the only ones to hear complaints about marijuana gardens.
The city of Rogue River's Planning Commission and City Council have been examining potential restrictions on growers. Any potential new laws wouldn't be adopted in time for this year's growing season, said Rogue River City Administrator Mark Reagles.
The city of Rogue River's Planning Commission looked at proposals that marijuana be grown only indoors — either in a greenhouse or inside the grower's home, Reagles said.
City of Rogue River officials have heard testimony that that might not be enough to control odors in neighborhoods, he said.
Growing marijuana indoors in a home can be costly, expose the grower to overwhelming smells and could push people to rent homes for the exclusive purpose of raising marijuana plants, according to public testimony.
Oregon law allows a patient to grow six plants for himself or herself. A grower can raise six plants each for patients with medical marijuana cards.
The Rogue River Planning Commission looked at a proposal to ban the growing of medical marijuana within 1,000 feet of public and private schools and daycare centers, Reagles said.
"Once you did an overlay of those 1,000 foot circles around schools and daycare, there was literally not any place left in the city to grow," he said.
The Planning Commission plans to draw 100 to 200 foot buffer zone circles and see what impact that might have, Reagles said.
Another idea is to restrict marijuana gardens to industrial zones, he said.
Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness said many growers may be growing too much marijuana, which could be exacerbating odor issues.
Although six plants are allowed per patient, once those plants are harvested, they often produce far more than the pound-and-a-half of material that is allowed per patient, Holderness said.
Duckworth said growers can stay within the rules governing harvested material by staggering harvest times, getting dried medical marijuana to patients right away rather than storing it, or donating excess material.
Medical marijuana cannot be legally sold under Oregon law.
Regardless of the number of plants a grower has, Holderness said odor from marijuana gardens is a common problem affecting many communities, especially as marijuana buds begin maturing in September and October.
To avoid odor nuisance citations in Ashland, growers usually need to eliminate the odor problem, and that means reducing the number of plants or harvesting them, Holderness said.
Identifying a smell as offensive can be admittedly subjective, but if a police officer can easily smell the plants, and the odor interferes with a neighbor's ability to enjoy his or her property, it's likely a violation of Ashland's odor nuisance law, he said.
Holderness said when Oregon voters loosened state law to allow for medical marijuana in 1998, most probably didn't realize marijuana plants can shoot up much higher than a person's head and produce powerful smells.
"Everyone was thinking about the little potted plants they remember from their college days," he said. "I don't think people realize we have people growing marijuana plants the size of citrus trees."
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.