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Does marijuana smell bad? An Oregon court issues ruling on 'olfactory assault'

Does marijuana smell bad? An Oregon court issues ruling on 'olfactory assault'
Aperson smokes at a celebration for the legalization of recreational marijuana on July 1 in Portland, Ore. (Beth Nakamura / The Oregonian)

Every now and then, the people must call upon the wisdom of the American judicial system to answer the urgent questions of our time.

For instance: Does weed smell bad?

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Not necessarily, an Oregon appeals court says.

"Indeed, some people undoubtedly find the scent pleasant," the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled last week, in a long, serious, thoroughly considered, precedent-setting, and thus objectively amusing ruling.

As with many court cases, the back story is a little convoluted, though the basic scenario is probably familiar to many Americans with neighbors or roommates who like to light up.

The ruling stemmed from a 2012 Philomath, Ore., criminal case in which a man living in a triplex phoned police to complain about the smell of marijuana wafting into his apartment from the building's center unit.

The caller, who had been living there for eight years, complained that the smell from the middle apartment had been getting "worse and worse," according to the court's summary of the case.

More seriously, another resident who was undergoing treatment for drug abuse told police that the stench from the middle unit was an unwelcome emotional "trigger." Other residents said they smelled weed two or three times a week.

A police officer, spotting two people outside the middle apartment, first tried to play peacemaker instead of enforcer and asked them to put a fan in their window or to do something to get rid of the smoke.

But when the smells continued -- and here's the key legal part -- the officer got a search warrant from a judge to go into the apartment to look for evidence of second-degree disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.

The charge suggested that the annoying weed smell, under state law, constituted "a hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act which the person is not licensed or privileged to do."

In other words, forget possession, which only became legal in Oregon in July -- producing smoke from truly skunky weed could be a crime in itself. At the time, possessing less than an ounce of marijuana  carried a lesser charge: a noncriminal violation similar to a traffic ticket, and not something an officer could seek a warrant for.

This is where the case gets a bit complicated. When the officer went inside with the warrant, he instead found cans of spray paint and stencils that police believed had been used to paint graffiti around town.

That's how Jared William Lang, who lived in the middle apartment, ended up charged and convicted on three counts of criminal mischief -- for the graffiti.

Last week's ruling on stinky weed sprung from an appeal Lang filed on the graffiti charges. Lang argued that police had violated his rights by not presenting probable cause to enter his apartment. (Evidence taken from an unlawful search is no good in court, as any decent "Law & Order" fan knows.)

Lang's appeal raised a basic challenge: The officer should not have been granted the warrant in the first place because the smell of marijuana alone was not a "physically offensive condition" under state law. Therefore, there was no reason to come inside.

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In a 4,500-word ruling that sent appeals judges flipping through dictionaries and using phrases like "olfactory assault," Oregon's appeals court agreed -- somewhat -- and threw out Lang's conviction.

It turned out that state law didn't really have a definition for what "physically offensive condition" means, driving the judges to check with Webster's Third New International Dictionary and philosophically mull over the nature and ethics of smells.

It's not that weed can't smell bad or be offensive to some people, Judge Erika L. Hadlock wrote in her opinion for the court. But some people happen to enjoy it.

"We are not prepared to declare, as the state would have us, that the odor of marijuana smoke is equivalent to the odor of garbage," Hadlock wrote. "Nor can we say, however, that the odor is inoffensive as a matter of law. We could perhaps say with confidence that a fleeting whiff of marijuana smoke would not offend a reasonable person, but as the intensity, duration or frequency of the odor increases, it stands to reason that it would become objectively offensive at some point, particularly depending on the location in which it is smelled."

As a result, Hadlock decided that the smell of weed alone was at best a "neutral factor" in the case. What mattered more was "the totality of the circumstances" -- how strong the smell was, or how long it lasted, and how much it intruded into other people's homes.

And what Hadlock found in Lang's case was that police evidence of tremendous, overwhelming weed smoke coming from Lang's apartment was a little too skimpy to justify a warrant.

"With regard to the intensity of the odor, the [officer's] affidavit is nearly silent," Hadlock noted soberly, as she tried to assess with legal precision exactly how stinky Lang's apartment was.

In a footnote, Hadlock noted that she did not intend to show any disrespect to the local judge who had issued the warrant.

"Before this opinion was issued, our case law provided no guidance on the factors relevant to the determination of whether an odor constitutes a physically offensive condition," Hadlock wrote.

So Lang's case was remanded back to local officials, who seemed to have lost their key evidence in the graffiti case because of a new legal precedent on irritating smells. The Oregon attorney general's office said it does not plan to appeal.

Lang couldn't immediately be reached Tuesday to comment.

Follow @MattDPearce for national news

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