SCARBOROUGH — Employees at Swaney Lighting Associates first noticed the smell about three months ago.
Shawn Swaney, the company’s owner, assumed it was kids smoking pot nearby. He said he has no problem with marijuana personally, and saw no reason to do or say anything.
But the smell didn’t go away. Every day when Swaney and his workers arrived, they were hit with a skunky wave of marijuana scent.
After several hours in the office, Swaney said, his eyes got red and scratchy, and his throat got irritated. Four of his six employees reported feeling ill as well.
“I’ve been here three hours and I think I have a slight buzz already,” Swaney said Monday morning.
Someone is growing marijuana in the office directly below Swaney Lighting at Pleasant Hill Place, an office complex just off Route 1. It’s legal under Maine law, which says state-certified caregivers can grow as many as six plants for as many as five medical marijuana patients, for a maximum of 30 plants.
Although state officials and medical marijuana advocates say most caregivers grow in their own homes, nothing in state law dictates where a caregiver has to grow. As long as a property owner approves it, marijuana can be grown legally in a commercial space.
There is no sign on the door and no mailbox for Suite 102 at Pleasant Hill Place. On Monday, the blinds were drawn on both windows facing the parking lot, and the door to the office was covered with a sheet of reflective material. The door was locked and no one answered a knock on the door at 11:30 a.m., or at 5 p.m.
The business name on the occupancy permit is Blue Flame Arts & Crafts. The individual listed on the permit is Ballou Poppas. Several messages left at the phone number listed on the permit were not returned.
The manager at Pleasant Hill Place, Joseph Wojcik of Income Property Management, said he has begun working with the tenant to address other tenants’ complaints by installing odor scrubbers and a direct vent to carry the smell away from the building.
Wojcik, who said he first rented to Poppas about five months ago, called him “a good tenant so far.” Wojcik said he wrote language into the lease saying that if anyone complained, the tenant would make efforts to mitigate the problems.
Without a receptive landlord, Swaney said, he would have been stuck.
“I can’t smoke on a public beach, but someone can grow directly underneath me,” he said. “That doesn’t seem right.”
Maine’s medical marijuana law was adopted in 1999, expanded significantly in 2009 and altered again in 2011.
Some say the law is now too lax and ambiguous, and are concerned about some aspects, including the elimination of reporting requirements for medical marijuana patients. The state now has no way of knowing how many patients are prescribed the drug and for what purpose.
The latest amendments to the law, some of which took effect as recently as Jan. 1, allow caregivers to grow outdoors as long as they have certain security measures. Odors are not addressed in the latest rules.
The issue at Pleasant Hill Place in Scarborough could be another unintended consequence of loosening Maine’s medical marijuana law, but it appears to be rare.
Dave Grysk, Scarborough’s zoning administrator, issued the occupancy permit to Poppas and was told that the space would be used for growing marijuana. “We had our reservations, but it met all the requirements,” he said.
To his knowledge, Pleasant Hill Place is the town’s only growing operation in a commercial location.
Patricia Doucette, code enforcement officer in neighboring South Portland, said she has received inquiries about growing marijuana in a commercial location but has not issued any permit.
If an applicant met local zoning requirements and state regulations, Doucette said, she would have no basis to deny a permit.
Westbrook Code Enforcement Officer Rick Gouzie said he has never issued a permit or gotten inquires about growing in a commercial space.
Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city of Portland, said the staff knows of no caregivers in the city who are growing marijuana at commercial sites.
The state has no authority to monitor sites where patients and caregivers grow marijuana, said John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. That means environmental concerns, such as odor complaints, would not fall under the department’s purview.
An estimated 800 certified caregivers are registered with the state, but the DHHS does not track whether certified caregivers or growers cultivate in residential or commercial locations.
Outside Pleasant Hill Place, there is virtually no odor. But inside, the smell is unmistakable. It is strongest in the stairway leading to the second-floor offices, where Swaney Lighting operates.
Judi Joy, office manager for Walthan Services, a pest control company that operates next door to the growing operation, said she has smelled marijuana for months.
“I smell it strongest in the morning when I first get in,” she said.
Joy said the smell has bothered her on occasion, but she’s more curious about the operation than anything else.
“I’ve never actually seen anyone go in there,” she said. “Don’t you have to tend to the plants?”
Paul McCarrier of Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine said most growers know about odor problems associated with growing and take steps to mitigate them, particularly if neighbors are concerned.
McCarrier doesn’t think that Swaney or his employees are feeling any actual effects from prolonged exposure to the smell of marijuana.
“There have been studies of secondhand smoke that showed that someone would have to be inhaling smoke for 48 hours straight to get high,” McCarrier said. “The contact high that people talk about is a placebo effect.”
And he said people don’t get high from the scent of unlit marijuana.
Swaney disagrees, and said at least one of his employees has gone to a doctor for an evaluation.
Swaney threatened to move out of the building, where his business has operated for 18 years, but now says he will stay since the grower is working to mitigate the smell. Swaney said what he really wants is some clarity on the issue.
“I’m not against (medical) marijuana, but I can’t believe no one thought that this would be a concern,” he said.
Maine laws are subject to change through the legislative process. Bills have been submitted to legalize marijuana outright and expand the list of conditions under which a patient can be certified to use it.
Swaney hopes that a lawmaker might submit a bill to offer some recourse for businesspeople, like him, who have to coexist with a marijuana grower.
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: