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Change Is in the Air: The Smell of Marijuana, after Legalization

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 April 2020


Marijuana continues to be legalized throughout the world. In the United States, a unique approach to legalization is taking hold that focuses on the creation of commercial marijuana markets. This article examines the everyday realities of this approach to legalization through a focus on one of marijuana’s most legally significant attributes: its smell. In the context of prohibition, the smell of marijuana was a key tool of criminal law enforcement. In the context of legalization, its significance has expanded to include nuisance laws governing the presence of unwanted odors and commercial laws that facilitate economic activity in the marijuana market. By focusing on the sense of smell in the context of marijuana legalization, this article shows the implications of the market-based approach for drug policy reform. More broadly, this focus highlights the importance of the senses to sociolegal change and the ongoing construction of legality in the context of capitalism.

© 2020 American Bar Foundation

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The research on which this article is based was generously supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. I would like to thank my colleagues at Drake University for their multiple engagements with this piece, particularly those in the Law, Politics, and Society Program, the Drake Law Library, members of the Faculty Writing Project, students in the Senior Seminar, and my research team. I would also like to thank Heath Cabot and the four anonymous reviewers for their generous, constructive feedback. And, of course, I am forever indebted to those in Colorado who were willing to participate in this project.


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