By Donald Wittkowski
Two marijuana advocates urged City Council on Thursday night to consider allowing a cannabis dispensary in Ocean City, but immediately faced strong opposition from members of the governing body.
“I’ll die before I’ll vote for recreational marijuana in Ocean City,” Councilman Michael DeVlieger said.
DeVlieger noted he does not oppose medical marijuana patients using the drug in the privacy of their own homes, but made it clear he is against having a pot dispensary in town.
“It’s a very slippery slope, and I don’t want it here,” he said. “And that goes for dispensaries as well.”
Agreeing with DeVlieger, Councilman Bob Barr insisted there was “no way” he would support the recreational use of marijuana or a dispensary in Ocean City.
“I don’t want a dispensary here or anything like that,” Barr said.
Barr expressed fear that marijuana users would simply begin smoking pot in popular tourist areas of town, such as the boardwalk and beaches, if the city did not block dispensaries from opening up.
DeVlieger and Barr’s opposition came in response to public comments from two medical marijuana advocates who argued that Ocean City should consider allowing a pot dispensary so that chronically ill patients and recreational customers would have easy access to cannabis while visiting or vacationing in the beach town.
“You don’t realize that you have the power of life and death in your hands,” said Edward “Lefty” Grimes, an activist who wants medical marijuana patients to have the right to smoke pot in public.
Grimes, who lives in East Hanover, N.J., said he drove two hours to Ocean City to attend the City Council meeting and to “beg you for our lives.”
Hugh Giordano, a representative of Local 152 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, told Council that a marijuana dispensary could serve Ocean City’s tourist market and also generate tax revenue.
“This is tax revenue that could go back to the town and create good jobs,” he said.
The UFCW, which represents union employees at the Acme supermarkets in Ocean City, also has medical marijuana workers in New Jersey as union members.
“It’s something we think is important to the union,” Giordano said.
Medical marijuana is legal in New Jersey, but Grimes accused former Gov. Chris Christie of creating “many roadblocks” that prevented patients from obtaining the drug for chronic pain or illness.
Noting that only a few medical marijuana dispensaries currently exist in the state, Grimes hopes that a new one will open up in Ocean City or perhaps another community at the Jersey Shore.
Newly inaugurated Gov. Phil Murphy made it a campaign promise to legalize recreational use of marijuana, prompting intense debate among New Jersey towns whether they want stores or dispensaries to sell the drug within their borders.
In January, Mayor Jay Gillian and members of City Council said they had no interest in allowing marijuana dispensaries in Ocean City. They also voiced concerns that recreational pot smoking, if allowed, would harm the city’s family-friendly image.
Gillian told Council in January that he has directed Ocean City’s solicitor, Dorothy McCrosson, to look into ways to possibly ban marijuana sales.
McCrosson said every version she has reviewed of proposed state legislation to legalize recreational marijuana would allow local municipalities to opt out of pot sales. In the process, they would not be able to share in the tax revenue generated by those sales.
Gillian and some Council members said they have no interest in benefiting from a “sin tax” on the drug.
David Breeden, an Ocean City resident who regularly speaks at the Council meetings, urged the governing body to ban marijuana sales.
“Ocean City does not need to chase that dollar,” Breeden said of marijuana tax revenue.
Murphy made marijuana legalization part of his campaign platform. He pledged to sign a marijuana bill within the first 100 days of his Jan. 16 inauguration.
Although Ocean City is considering the possibility of banning marijuana sales, other Jersey Shore towns have already taken action. Point Pleasant Beach and Berkeley Township, both in Ocean County, have approved ordinances to prohibit pot sales.
The likelihood that Ocean City will formally ban pot sales prompted Grimes and Giordano to appear before Council at Thursday night’s meeting to lobby on behalf of medical marijuana patients and pot dispensaries.
Giordano, after listening to Council’s comments, said he will continue to advocate for marijuana dispensaries, despite the city’s opposition.
“I think there’s a lack of education about this issue,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
Founded in 1879 as a Christian resort by a group of Methodist ministers, Ocean City has always been a “dry” town. The ban on alcohol sales is a centerpiece of the city’s image as a safe, family-style summer vacation retreat.
Gillian and members of Council argued that a ban on marijuana dispensaries would be consistent with the town’s laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol.
In other business Thursday, Council heard a presentation on Gillian’s proposed $79.9 million municipal budget from Chief Financial Officer Frank Donato.
The 2018 spending plan would add a penny to the local tax rate while financing an array of construction projects that address the city’s critical infrastructure needs.
The owner of a $500,000 home would pay an extra $50 annually in local taxes under the budget, Donato said.
Council will scrutinize the budget as it prepares to formally introduce it on March 22 during the first of two votes required for the spending plan. A final vote and public hearing are tentatively scheduled for April 26.
Council members reacted favorably after hearing Donato’s presentation. They called it a “lean budget” that places tight controls on spending, but promised to return with detailed questions for Donato.