One By One, Delaware Beach Towns Move to Ban Cannabis Dispensaries

    Three of Delaware’s six most prominent beach towns have now voted to ban cannabis dispensaries, while the other three are in discussions to do the same. All are located in Sussex County, the state’s Republican stronghold.

    The first town, Dewey Beach, passed its ordinance in June. On August 18, Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach followed suit. Fenwick Island began drafting an ordinance in July. South Bethany is expected to be reviewing one of its own in September or October. Lewes is in similar discussions.

    The slightly inland town of Ocean View, also part of Sussex County, introduced a proposed ordinance in July. Its town council does not meet in August and so the ban will not be voted on until at least September.

    “It’s almost laughable,’’ Mark Jacobs, a member of the state’s Marijuana Control Act Oversight Committee, told WHYY. “I mean, Dewey Beach, which encourages excessive drinking, whose clubs are fined yearly for violating the state’s alcohol laws. It’s hypocritical that a town that has the well-earned reputation of being a party town is first to jump on the old, debunked reefer madness attitude that it’s somehow perfectly acceptable to get sloshed drunk, but it’s not acceptable to get a little stoned.”

    In April, Delaware passed legislation that legalized cannabis for adult use and then regulated its commercial sale. But it also permits jurisdictions to ban cannabis businesses at the local level. Only jurisdictions within Sussex County, the southernmost of Delaware’s three counties, have so far taken steps to do so, with legislators warning that dispensaries would attract “unsavory” people and residents stating that cannabis use is incompatible with a beach being family-friendly.

    The culture within the bloc of towns opposing cannabis sales is not exactly friendly toward cannabis use.

    Town councilmembers are looking beyond just dispensary bans. Dewey Beach, Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach have also banned other all cannabis businesses like production and manufacturing facilities. Meanwhile, the bans permit continued sale of CBD, as well as tobacco and alcohol— substances that are also legal for adult use, but associated with significantly greater health risks.

    The state will likely begin licensing 30 authorized dispensaries in September 2024, with sales estimated to begin in late November or December. Delaware being a relatively small state, some residents will have the means to buy regulated cannabis in a nearby town without too much trouble. But the culture within the bloc of Atlantic coastal towns opposing cannabis sales is not exactly friendly toward cannabis use, for which the bans could have additional implications.

    Rehoboth Beach, for example, has already voted to ban smoking marijuana in public even though the function of such a ban is not entirely clear—the state legislation legalizing cannabis for adult use doesn’t permit public consumption.

    As in the rest of the United States, marijuana prohibition in Delaware targeted Black residents, who were more than four times as likely to be arrested for possession compared to white residents. This disproportional criminalization did not change after the state decriminalized marijuana in 2015. Unauthorized cannabis sale remains a felony in Delaware, and even the lowest tier of penalties—for amounts under 1500 grams—is punishable by up to eight years in prison.



    Photograph of Rehoboth Beach via State of Delaware

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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