Why You Can’t Tell When You Smell Like Weed

How not to alert the world to the fact that you just got high.

By Jessie Schiewe

Nice smell. What do you call it? Eau de cannabis?  (Art:    Trav)

Nice smell. What do you call it? Eau de cannabis? (Art: Trav)

There are a few tell-tale signs that can out you when you’ve smoked weed. Your eyes might become bloodshot and your facial features might droop. Maybe you’ll get hit with a sudden case of the munchies or become inexplicably tired or hyper. These are all indications of someone who has just lit up, but nothing, however, can out you more than your stench.

That’s right, it’s not just your weed that smells dank. By virtue of smoking it, you will, too. Marijuana is a complex substance, that, like all plants found in nature, is full of aromatic compounds called terpenes. They’re the reason for cannabis’ strong scent, and they become even stronger when you light up.

By burning marijuana — be it in a joint, bong, or bowl — you’re releasing additional chemical compounds into the air, ones that can then stick to your hair, clothing, skin, and any other porous surfaces.

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And you don’t even need to imbibe to pick up this weed smell. The compounds released through burning cannabis are dispersed everywhere. In other words, simply by being in the same space as someone who has lit up, you, too, will become odiferous.

The craziest part of all is that you likely will have no idea that you reek of cannabis. Similar to smoking cigarettes, it’s near impossible to detect the smell of weed on oneself after getting high or being around those who have done so. It’s why parents can tell when kids are stoned even if they’re acting “normal,” and it’s a common excuse used by cops to search cars even if the driver claims they haven’t been smoking.

Research into this phenomenon is still relatively sparse and incomplete. For instance, we don’t know how long it takes for one to become immune to the smell of weed or how long that stench lingers in the fabric of our clothes. Pamela Dalton, a faculty member at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, said the dearth of this kind of research is largely because marijuana, though legal in some states, is still considered a controlled substance on the federal level. Getting approval, not to mention funding, to study the recreational use of cannabis can be “incredibly difficult,” she said.

But for someone who has been studying environmental odors and chemical sensitivities since the ‘90s, Dalton is not totally mystified as to why we can’t smell ourselves when we reek of weed. She’s pretty sure the reason has to do with olfactory adaptation. Basically, the molecules released from burning cannabis bind to the smell receptors in our noses, essentially preventing us from being able to detect that specific odor.

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“It’s not that you can’t then smell your wine or your coffee or your beer,” Dalton explained. “You just simply can’t smell the aromas from the cannabis.”

Olfactory adaptation is not just limited to the smell of weed. It can happen anytime you are exposed to a pervasive and strong scent for a long period of time. It’s why you don’t notice how stinky a public bathroom is by the time you wash your hands and head out the door. Or why you might notice the smell of something cooking in the oven when you first enter the kitchen and then forget about it moments later.

Eventually the molecules will unbind from your nasal receptors allowing you to detect that specific aroma again, but how long that takes is anyone’s guess.

“I know it’s real. I’ve experienced it personally and practically everyone I’ve talked to has also,” Dalton said. “But what’s interesting is that nobody’s ever looked at the time of course of adaptation or how long this lasts.”

And someone really should. Taking a mere hit of weed at school, at work, or at your parents’ house could have real consequences beyond merely annoying others with your stench. It could also get you in trouble with the law. Cops can use probable cause as a justification for searching your car if they detect the smell of marijuana. And even if they don’t find any incriminating evidence, they can still slap you with a DUI.

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Stoners concerned about unintentionally outing themselves have a few options to help mask the smell of weed. Instead of smoking from a joint or a bong, consider using a vape pen. Like e-cigarettes, many of the natural combustible elements found in cannabis are removed and diluted when turned into the oils used in vape pens.

There’s also the option of using a sploof. While you can make one yourself using a paper towel roll, a dryer sheet, and a rubber band, you can also purchase ready-made ones online for around $20. They even sell them on Amazon.

There are also sprays you can buy to eliminate the stench of cannabis, but Dalton advises against using them.

“There’s no way to predict whether it would work,” she said, “and, if it did, whether it would disguise the odor for everyone.”

Your best bet, really, is to just focus on yourself and not the environment in which you smoked in. Leave that area, change your clothes, wash your hair, and even slap on a face mask if you feel so inclined. If you’re still worried about smelling like weed, ask someone who wasn’t around when you got high to give you a sniff. They’ll be a far better judge of it than you will.

 

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