Sniffing out the federal ban on marijuana

For years as a teacher at Chicago Vocational High School, I was the unofficial narc of the school’s west wing, cursed or blessed with a heightened sense or smell.

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Fifteen states allow the recreational use of weed, and 36 have legalized pot for medical use. A federal ban messes with them all.


I am cursed with hyperosmia. Or blessed.

The jury is still out.

Hyperosmia is a heightened sense of smell. Scientists concede it is a real condition, but they’re not sure whether it’s genetic or acquired. 

When I enter someone’s house, my nose immediately detects if they have a soiled dishrag in the sink. Or if their dog has an ear infection. 

Opinion bug


I used to call the police, and later the gas company, to report a telltale leak at a residence I might pass on my morning bicycle ride. 

Some smells give me a feeling of euphoria, such as the smell of snow, balsam or the sea. Other smells repulse me, including those of many perfumes and colognes and the sickly sweet pungency of marijuana.

Which lately has been of greater concern to me, now that the Democrats control both houses of Congress and are looking to repeal a federal statute against marijuana that classifies it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, just like heroin or LSD. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says that getting rid of the federal ban is a “priority.”

I will not dispute that something needs to be done. Our nation’s tangled mess of contradictory marijuana laws is frustrating for consumers, paralyzing for law enforcement, harmful to the economy, and cruel to pain sufferers.

Fifteen states allow the recreational use of weed, and 36 have legalized pot for medical use. But the federal prohibition messes with all of them. 

Say, for example, you live here in Illinois where recreational weed is legal, and you have two joints (one gram) in your shirt pocket. Or maybe you live in neighboring Missouri, where marijuana is legal for medical reasons, and you have two joints to relieve the pain from an ulcer. Well, in neither case would you be wise to visit an airport or get on a plane where the federal law applies — and where you could be charged with felony possession of a controlled substance. 

This is why both Chicago airports, O’Hare and Midway, have blue “amnesty boxes” at every TSA checkpoint, where perfectly innocent travelers had better ditch the evidence before trying to fly.

And even if you just stay home, you’re still running a risk with the feds, at least on paper, if you light up a joint to treat that ulcer — thanks to a 2018 directive by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He directed the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration to enforce the federal statute on pot by raiding residences wherever and whenever they saw fit.

But even apart from this legal logistical nightmare, the federal law is a human rights violation. Not only because our nation has a history of discriminatory marijuana law enforcement against people of color, but also because the law is a source of needless physical pain. 

As Dr. Peter Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School writes, cannabis has proven to be “effective for the chronic pain that plagues millions of Americans” suffering from a long list of ailments, including Parkinson’s Disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia and PTSD. 

Though a majority of states allows the use of weed for medical reasons, the federal ban makes every phase of growing, purchasing, shipping, possessing, transporting and taking the “controlled substance” more difficult. The ban also makes medical and recreational cannabis more expensive, since licensed pot companies in states where it is legal must pay excessively high federal taxes, being prohibited from taking business deductions. As Rolling Stone magazine has pointed out, the federal government actually profits from keeping pot illegal.

Imagine if it were a federal felony to manufacture or possess aspirin, naproxen or ibuprofen. See what I mean? 

Which brings me back to my nose.

For years as a teacher at Chicago Vocational High School, I was the unofficial narc of the school’s west wing. Whether I had just entered the building on a snowy December morning or was parsing sentences on my classroom blackboard in the afternoon, I was the first to know when students were lighting up a blunt under a stairwell or in a rest room. I would have to stop what I was doing, bust the offenders, collect their identification and walk them to the disciplinarian’s office. 

It’s been years since I taught at CVS, but I still associate that skunky odor with students getting high, cutting class and dropping out. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to disassociate the smell of weed from an overwhelming sense of failure.

According to recent polls, about 70% of all Americans favor marijuana legalization. And I am willing to join the crowd, as long as any repeal of the federal ban also mandates that states, whatever other regulations they impose, forbid the use of pot by anyone under the age of 21 and outlaw pot smoking by anybody in public places. 

Then will I welcome Sen. Schumer’s bill.

Sure, underage kids will find a way to smoke a joint all the same. But they should be forewarned that someone will sniff them out.

David McGrath, emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage, is the author of a new collection of essays, “South Siders.” He can be reached at

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