By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City elected officials Thursday night angrily denounced New Jersey’s legalization of recreational marijuana, calling some parts of the new pot laws nothing short of “insanity.”
“I can’t tell you how upset I am,” Mayor Jay Gillian said during comments at a City Council Zoom meeting.
Clearly livid, Gillian launched a broad attack against pot’s legalization and was joined by the seven-member governing body.
“It’s just ridiculous. I just can’t fathom this,” Gillian said.
At one point, Gillian bluntly added, “This disgusts me.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, who made his support of recreational marijuana a major campaign issue, signed three bills on Monday to legalize pot for adults 21 and older and to decriminalize it for people under 21.
The governor’s bill signing ended a three-year political saga and fierce debate in the Statehouse on how to regulate and tax the marijuana industry.
From the start, Ocean City’s Council has objected to marijuana’s legalization, passing an ordinance in 2019 to ban the sale of pot in a town that bills itself as “America’s Greatest Family Resort.”
“I’m 1,000 percent zero tolerance on this,” City Council President Bob Barr said Thursday of his opposition to legal pot smoking in public.
All of the other Council members echoed Barr’s comments.
Gillian and City Council vowed to continue to fight against provisions in the marijuana legislation, particularly those that decriminalize pot use among young people and place limits on police enforcement.
“I’m not giving up on this,” Gillian declared.
Gillian believes that the decriminalization of pot smoking for young people is “the last thing kids need.”
“They need structure,” he said.
Under the new pot laws, police will be barred from stopping young people if they simply smell marijuana. Police will only be able to give young people warnings if they actually see them in possession of pot.
“This is a sea change in the way these offenses are handled,” City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said while giving the Council members an overview of the new marijuana laws.
McCrosson explained that if police wrongfully detain someone for marijuana, the officers can be charged with violating a person’s civil rights and may be open to liability lawsuits.
The Council members repeatedly said the marijuana laws would “handcuff” police in attempts to do their job.
“This is insanity,” Councilman Jody Levchuk said.
“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Councilman Michael DeVlieger added.
State Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, who attended the Council meeting, joined the governing body in criticizing the restrictions placed on police officers. McClellan, an Ocean City resident and former councilman, expressed fear that young people could simply stroll down the Boardwalk, smoking marijuana, without having to worry about being confronted by police.
“They’re allowing kids to do things without repercussions, and that’s not a good thing,” McClellan said.
McClellan, who represents the First Legislative District, pledged that he and the First District legislative team will work with Ocean City’s elected leadership in the fight against marijuana’s legalization.
Councilman Tom Rotondi suggested that Ocean City should also join up with elected leaders in Cape May County for a lawsuit against legal pot and the restrictions placed on police enforcement.
“I think we need to work with the entire county to stop this, because this is insane,” Rotondi said.
McCrosson noted that the Cape May County Chiefs of Police Association has been discussing its options and “all possibilities are on the table.”
Ocean City Police Chief Jay Prettyman has begun working on the framework for how his department will respond to and enforce the provisions of the new marijuana laws, McCrosson said.
After he signed the marijuana bills into law, Murphy said the drug’s legalization in New Jersey would end the injustice of blacks being arrested for possession of pot at higher rates than whites.
“As of this moment, New Jersey’s broken and indefensible marijuana laws, which permanently stained the records of many residents and short-circuited their futures, and which disproportionately hurt communities of color and failed the meaning of justice at every level, social or otherwise – are no more,” the governor said.
According to media reports, the decriminalization part of the marijuana laws allows people to possess up to six ounces of pot without legal consequence. Ocean City’s Council members also strongly criticized that provision, saying it would permit young people to legally sell large amounts of pot.
“You’re going to have teenage drug dealers now, with no consequence,” Levchuk said.
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.
Council members and the mayor have repeatedly expressed concerns that the city’s family-friendly reputation could be harmed if people simply begin smoking pot in popular tourist areas, such as the Boardwalk or on the beaches.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, the Council members reiterated their opposition to a proposed wind energy farm that would be built 15 miles off the southern part of the New Jersey coast, including Ocean City.
DeVlieger, the most outspoken critic of the wind farm on Council, said he sees “nothing positive” about the project. He and other Council members have warned about the wind farm’s possible negative impacts on Ocean City’s tourism trade, the environment and the commercial fishing industry.
Members of the public joined with Council at its Zoom meeting to oppose the wind farm. A handful of residents from Ocean City and Upper Township voiced their frustration with what they said is a lack of information on the project’s possible harm to tourism and the environment.
Orsted, the Danish energy company that would build the wind farm, is in the midst of a rigorous permitting process that is expected to take 27 months to complete. DeVlieger said it is unlikely that the company will start construction before May 2023. Construction would take about a year to complete.
Orsted plans to build nearly 100 wind-powered turbines 15 miles offshore stretching from Atlantic City to Stone Harbor, passing by Ocean City in the process. Council members are concerned because the wind turbines, which will stand about 850 feet above mean sea level, will be visible from Ocean City’s shoreline, creating a visual blight and environmental hazards.