Beaches act first as Delaware towns consider Marijuana regulations before stores arrive
Delaware legislators spent years debating whether to permit recreational marijuana use and create a regulated industry in the state.
After Gov. John Carney stood down his opposition in April allowing legalization bills to pass, new debates are now filtering down to local municipalities. Under the new law, smoking weed is legal in private places, but towns will be able to control whether and where marijuana can be grown and sold within their limits.
So far, Delaware's beach towns have taken the lead.
The town council in Dewey Beach in June voted unanimously to ban marijuana sales and other "marijuana-related business activities." The Dewey chief of police said weed would be "one more thing" for officers in the reputed party town to deal with.
Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach followed with similar bans in August. Ocean View and Fenwick Island passed bans in October.
"Safety comes first over individual rights, so you cannot infringe upon another’s next to you," Dewey Beach Mayor Williams Stevens said.
Other towns along Delaware's beaches have discussed marijuana ordinances, but have not yet acted. South Bethany fielded public input on a possible ban late last month. Lewes Town Council is expected to continue discussions in November meetings.
There have been few conversations among councils and planning commissions in New Castle and Kent counties. Mayors, town managers and city spokespeople reached by Delaware Online/The News Journal said they anticipate broaching the topic at some point in the coming months.
The Delaware Marijuana Control Act, the bill state legislators passed this spring to create a framework for the marijuana industry, allows municipalities to prohibit marijuana sales, cultivation and product manufacturing within their city limits. They can also enact their own regulations so long as they are not in conflict with those outlined by the state.
Municipalities can not prohibit people from partaking in private settings. Marijuana use is not allowed in public spaces statewide.
The act outlines some limitations for operations, including rules for hours of operation and distance between businesses. The framework is similar to how liquor stores are governed. Regulations to hand out licenses for marijuana businesses won't be finalized until next summer.
Some cities like Newark said they are waiting to see the state regulations before acting.
When will weed stores open in Delaware?
Delaware is still a long way from having cannabis stores on street corners.
Retail licenses won't be issued until February 2025, according to a timeline of the rollout provided by the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
In June, Carney appointed Robert Coupe, a former top law enforcement officer, as Delaware's first marijuana commissioner. He will be in charge of issuing 125 total licenses for cultivation, manufacturing, testing and retail facilities. His office can begin accepting applications for licenses on Aug. 5, 2024. That's the effective deadline for localities to decide their rules.
The debate over access
Advocates argue that reducing access to weed doesn't reduce demand and isn't effective. Towns should embrace marijuana, they say, as a safer alternative to alcohol and to limit the illicit market.
"It is safer for me, as an individual, to choose cannabis over alcohol, but it's also safer for me, as a female, to be around others who are choosing cannabis over alcohol," said Zoe Patchell, executive director of Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network.
There will be a 15% state tax. Rehoboth Beach Mayor Stan Mills said if towns were benefitting financially he would consider allowing sales and production, but didn't see much of a benefit with the tax money flowing to the state.
"I don't think we want to be the first or the biggest coastal community to do this," Mills told city commissioners in August.
Notably, the law does not allow county governments to prohibit sales, cultivation and production. In discussing their ordinances, the beach towns acknowledged that businesses will likely pop up in the unincorporated areas along Route 1.
There are a few cities elsewhere that it appears could allow marijuana sales and related businesses.
At a workshop in late September, Milford City Council signaled they will likely allow marijuana businesses. Discussion centered around how the city will need to consider regulations over the next few months. Milford has not yet passed a law.
"As the City of Milford, we think what our residents want we represent," Vice Mayor Jason James said. "We can do it we just need to track it slowly and find best practices, apply some thought to it like we do every other thing that comes before us."
When the City of Dover sought public input at a September meeting, the response was overwhelmingly in favor of having dispensaries in the city.
Felton resident Benita Rufus Gassi said using marijuana helps people like herself manage anxiety and adverse situations and others in the city could benefit from having access to it.
"It helps you handle adversity because people will come at you crazy and make you upset and make you feel like nothing sometimes," Gassi said. "Sometimes you need something to help you counteract that drama."
Tom Donovan, a cannabis advocate from Dover and a founding member of DelawareCAN, an education reform advocacy group, said the city should consider carefully its regulations but could be an example to other communities on how to treat recreational marijuana.
"It is important to allow adults to make responsible decisions," Donovan added.
An ordinance to ban marijuana sales and related businesses will be considered at a Nov. 6 Middletown Town Council meeting.