it’s not what you think

it’s not what you think

by Janice Nigro

Dreams have a funny way of incorporating events in real time with subconscious ones. A scientist friend once told me she was dreaming about making vats of a sulfur-smelling chemical solution that is commonly used in biological experiments (dithiothreitol if you are a biologist). When she woke up, she discovered a skunk outside her window.

My dreams were recently interrupted by the smell of skunk, but it wasn’t the Pepe le Pew kind.

The smell of skunk at the beach was something that confused me at first. I wasn’t living here for very long when I first encountered the elusive beach living skunk. “Hey,” I thought one of the first afternoons I was out on the beach in Hermosa, “skunks live at the beach?” Fascinating. But then realizing that I had been coming to the community for nearly 20 years and had never smelled nor seen a skunk, dead or alive, I had to reconsider.

It took a couple more encounters before I realized that the skunk zooming by me on a skateboard and the one at the beach were one in the same: the smoking kind.

Pot, weed, reefer, Mary Jane. While I might or might not be dating myself when I declare, “They are smoking a doobie”, I am definitely out of date with regard to “l’eau de weed” today. My excuse, I have been living overseas. It was only shortly before I left California for a long sabbatical overseas that medical marijuana became legal and use more widespread.

The fumes from this particular marijuana either coming from below me or next to me were bad, almost toxic, like burning rubber or melting asphalt. The kind of fumes that make your eyes water and make you feel your cells mutate.

It was a long session, especially for a Thursday morning. By the end of it, I was sure any decent drug sniffing dog at an airport might enthusiastically wag its tail at me, leading me to an uncomfortable discussion with authorities, especially if I happened to be traveling to Indonesia or Malaysia that day (I was not).

I had a hard time believing that my neighbors could smoke for that length of time without feeling some sort of pain or at least minor discomfort (like non-stop peeling of onions). It bothered me so much from several feet away that I almost yelled out the window more in concern for my neighbors’ health, “Hey dudes! Do you know what you are doing to your lungs?” It’s their life I thought, getting high on a Thursday morning, but as a cancer biologist I was immediately concerned for their lung epithelium.

Or mine.

I had to wonder exactly why my neighbors would voluntarily smoke that stuff (or presumably who would even prescribe it).

That skunk smelling type of weed is well, it’s Skunk! Skunk is a weed variety that allegedly originated in the USA from a cross of two other strains in order to generate a more potent one, i.e. boosting the content of the main psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), giving the smoker a potentially greater high. That answered the question of why my neighbors might want to smoke it and why they might not feel any pain.

My second question was why does it smell like that? The bouquet of pot or any plant is due in part to molecules called terpenes. These molecules are the basis for a variety of odors that we humans can sense. They cause pine trees to smell like pine (the origin of turpentine), but they can lead to something smelling lemony fresh or smelling, well, like a skunk. Terpenes however have nothing to do with odors emitted by skunk the animal. The smell of Skunk, like any characteristic, is simply the serendipitous result of genetics.

I have to admit that in my early morning I am not really awake state I became ridiculously concerned about failing a drug test (I work from home) or becoming moderately high as the pot smoking continued. But those fears are unfounded, unless you have been enclosed in an unventilated, small room with pot smokers.

My concern for my neighbors’ health and the recent election results (legalization of marijuana for recreational use) did set me off on a quest for scientific studies proving or disproving the negative health effects of smoking marijuana. What I did not expect to discover is that marijuana is an intriguing  plant. The effect that different varieties have on humans varies significantly, and the high that people talk about seems to be the sum total of several different molecules rather than THC alone. Ergo the creative names which cover every letter of the alphabet (purple trainwreck?), and none of which would seem to be remotely medically indicated for anything, except if you are chronically unable to laugh.

I found no argument I could have with my neighbors about the dangers of secondhand weed smoke. I could not even blame a bad case of wanting to eat Fritos for breakfast on their early morning smoking habits. One thing is for sure, Skunk stinks. If you are smoking it, have mercy on your neighbor. If you are not, lay your fears to rest-it’s not Pepe le Pew and relatives invading the beach.

©Janice Marie Nigro/


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