The Delaware boardwalk offers beachgoers sun, sand, and relaxation. It’s also the best place to hit if you have an incredible case of the munchies, offering snacks like funnel cakes, salt-and-vinegar French fries, and lobster rolls. Unfortunately, cannabis enthusiasts may not find legal weed nestled next to their favorite food vendors at the beach. That’s because beach towns along the state’s Atlantic Coast are looking to prohibit recreational marijuana retailers.
The push to ban marijuana sales along the beachfront is already impacting the sea-sprayed towns of Rehoboth, Bethany, and Dewey. At least three other coastal towns may be following suit.
The Push to Prohibit Marijuana at the Beach
Delaware beaches are popular attractions for both locals and tourists alike. In the summer, the beaches flood with people looking to soak in the sun and waves while spending their hard-earned dollars on the boardwalk and in the nearby local shops that line the beach. However, some local municipalities are making dramatic changes, limiting access to legal marijuana in the towns lining the Atlantic seaboard.
Although recreational cannabis is legal in Delaware, the popular summer towns of Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, and Bethany Beach have banned all cannabis operations in their jurisdiction. Retailers and dispensaries are not the only businesses impacted by the ban. Growing, manufacturing, and testing operations cannot operate in the towns. The towns of Lewes, South Bethany, and Ocean View are considering following through with marijuana bans.
What is pushing the growing marijuana ban movement in Delaware? According to the provisions of the new cannabis reform law, which took effect in April, the state’s 57 municipalities can prohibit authorized marijuana businesses from operating in their jurisdictions. Several beach towns quickly moved to prohibit cannabis retailers and businesses along the shore, saying they wanted to preserve their reputation as family-friendly vacation destinations.
Dewey Police Chief Constance Speake questions the optics of legal marijuana sales, saying people don’t read the laws and would purchase marijuana only to “be out on the street smoking dope.” Other city officials agree with the sentiment and say they’ve worked hard to shed Dewey Beaches’ image as a “party town.” However, one has to question the city’s sterling reputation as a family-friendly destination if, in the same breath, they claim to be attempting to shed their beach party town image.
In Rehoboth, Mayor Stan Mills echoes many of the same concerns about legalized marijuana sales. There, commissioners approved a marijuana ban by a 5 to 0 vote. One commissioner was absent from the vote, and another abstained from voting. Mayor Mills claims that prohibiting cannabis businesses helps protect the health and safety of residents and visitors to the seaside community.
What’s more concerning for licensed marijuana businesses in Delaware is that these same municipalities are considering ways to prohibit or strictly regulate cannabis retailers within the county, not just within city limits. Marijuana legislation allows towns to prohibit cannabis, but some say the law must also allow counties to regulate the substance.
At least one consequence of towns prohibiting marijuana operations within city limits is that these areas cannot capitalize on the 15 percent state tax on all cannabis sales. Advocates of cannabis reform call the bans “shortsighted” and make communities less safe. Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network President Zoe Patchell says cannabis prohibition is just as ineffectual as alcohol prohibition. Instead of giving customers a safe source of cannabis, individuals will instead turn to the illicit market or take their business elsewhere, allowing other cities to profit.
Does Marijuana Stigma Strike Again?
No other Delaware municipalities have moved to prohibit marijuana sales within their borders, according to Mark Jacobs, a member of the state’s Marijuana Control Act Oversight Committee. Jacobs, who lives in Lewes, claims that leaders in the beach towns are moving to prohibit marijuana sales based on old and outdated “refer madness” stereotypes. Many still view those who consume marijuana as lazy and a drain on community resources.
Jacobs points to the almost hypocritical comments from Dewey Beach leaders, the first beach town to ban marijuana. Dewey Beach has long been known as a “party” town. Clubs are fined annually for violating the state’s alcohol laws, and three local bars are well known for their alcohol-fueled debauchery. Yet, Dewey Beach was the first town to ban marijuana, calling it a threat to the family-friendly vibe of the beachside destination.
To be clear, consuming marijuana in public is illegal in Delaware. Users can consume cannabis in their home, someone else’s home, or their yard if they are at least ten feet from the sidewalk or property line. The state ban on consuming marijuana in public makes moves from towns like Rehoboth Beach even more confusing. The city moved forward with banning smoking marijuana in public, even though the state already prohibits public consumption.
Many claim the fear of cannabis users roaming beach town streets like zombies lighting up a joint in front of impressionable young children is illogical and perpetuates harmful stereotypes and stigmas. Yet, the sales of CBD, tobacco, and alcohol continue. Arguably, tobacco and alcohol detrimentally impact public health to a greater degree than cannabis consumption. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse estimates more than 140,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually. It is the fourth leading preventable cause of death, just behind tobacco use in the United States.
Still, the stigma surrounding cannabis use continues and may push more beach towns in Delaware to enact additional marijuana bans. Whether these bans hurt or help these tourist destinations remains to be seen. Tourists may choose to spend their dollars in other popular Delaware locales. After all, marijuana tourism has been a booming industry, an industry other areas of the state may attempt to capitalize on in the future.