Wave of prohibition against recreational weed stores rolls across Delaware beach towns

The beach towns of Rehoboth, Bethany, and Dewey won’t allow marijuana establishments — and South Bethany, Lewes, and Ocean View could be next.

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People walk down a boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach on a sunny day.

File: Rehoboth Beach won't have any retail stores selling recreational marijuana. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez)

Hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Delaware’s beach towns every summer to sunbathe, swim, dine, hit the bars, or simply chill out and relax.

But visitors who want to kick back and smoke a joint in their vacation home won’t be able to legally buy weed in the towns along the Atlantic Coast, even though since late April recreational marijuana has been legal in Delaware and 30 retail stores are permitted statewide.

This summer three towns — Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, and Bethany Beach – have banned all marijuana establishments, which includes not only retail dispensaries but growing, manufacturing, and testing operations. The other two towns along the 20-mile stretch of coastline — Lewes and South Bethany — are considering doing the same. So is Ocean View, a small town a few miles inland.

Marijuana products are displayed at the Good Leaf Dispensary
Retail stores whose shelves are stocked with marijuana, like this one in New York state, won’t open in Delaware until late 2024 at the earliest. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

The growing wave of prohibition at the beach stems from a provision in the law, which took effect in July, that creates a regulated marijuana market. The law allows the state’s 57 municipalities to prohibit any of the 125 weed businesses that are authorized. Licenses will be issued starting in the fall of 2024.

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The beach towns have raced to enact such bans, with town politicians proclaiming that they want to preserve their reputation as family vacation destinations.

When Dewey Beach passed its ban, Police Chief Constance Speake said having marijuana sales in town could lead to public use on Dewey streets.

“People just don’t read the laws. They’re going to go buy their product and then they’re going to be out on the street smoking dope,” Speake said.

Commissioner Paul Bauer agreed and said Dewey has been working to shed its image as a “party town.”

“Let’s say somebody’s next door to the Dairy Queen wants to open up and he gets a license through the state,’’ Bauer said. “Is that a good thing? Does that make it look like we’re still family friendly around here? I’m just looking at it from the optics of it.”

Zoe Patchell speaks in front of the Rehoboth Beach Board of Commissioners
Zoe Patchell of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network tries in vain Friday to persuade the Rehoboth Beach Board of Commissioners not to enact a ban on marijuana establishments. (Town of Rehoboth Beach)

Rehoboth Beach Mayor Stan Mills, who is also a commissioner, echoed that sentiment, adding that towns won’t get a share of the 15% state tax on sales. He also noted that although Zoe Patchell of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network spoke out against the ban before Friday’s vote, business leaders and residents didn’t come out and oppose it then or during workshops this summer. Commissioners approved the ban by a 5-0 vote with one member abstaining and one absent.

Rehoboth Beach Mayor Stan Mills says the ban aims to maintain the town’s reputation as a “family friendly” destination. (Town of Rehoboth Beach)

Prohibiting stores and other weed establishments will “protect the health, safety and comfort level of the community, including its residents and visitors,” Mills said in an interview this week. “We believe these regulations will help ensure that the beach retains its character as family friendly and welcoming to a wide variety of visitors.”

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The bans by the beach towns, which line the southeastern edge of sprawling and mostly rural Sussex County, come as county officials are mulling further restrictions on marijuana operations. Under the law, Delaware’s three counties can set rules “governing the time, place, manner and number of marijuana establishment operations” outside of town limits.

‘We are still fighting the old reefer madness’ mentality

No other municipalities have enacted a ban on weed businesses or indicated they might do so, said Mark Jacobs, a cannabis advocate and member of the state’s new Marijuana Control Act Oversight Committee.

Jacobs, a retired aerospace software engineer who lives near Lewes, says elected leaders in the beach towns are viewing marijuana users from an outdated stereotype.

“We are still fighting the old reefer madness that people who use cannabis are low-life ne’er-do-wells who live in their parents basement playing video games,” Jacobs said. “And there is still this mentality that getting sloshed out of your mind and out of control is preferable to smoking a joint and getting relaxed and calm and not wanting to bother anybody.”

He singled out Dewey Beach, known for alcohol-fueled revelry at the Starboard, Rusty Rudder, and Bottle & Cork — three popular bars that dominate the town’s landscape along Coastal Highway. Dewey was the first to enact a ban.

The exterior of Starboard restaurant
Dewey Beach, known for alcohol-fueled revelry at the Starboard and a handful of bars along the coastal trip, was the first to ban marijuana establishments. (Google Maps)

“It’s almost laughable,’’ Jacobs said. “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.”

Adults age 21 and over are permitted to have and transport up to an ounce of marijuana in a closed container, but can get arrested for driving under the influence. Users can smoke in their home or someone else’s house, even in the yard, as long as they are at least 10 feet from the sidewalk or property line. It’s still illegal to smoke marijuana out in public.

So while Mayor Mills and the other commissioners in Rehoboth Beach have decided their town won’t have stores selling weed, they are cognizant that residents and visitors will likely be buying buds or edibles at one or more stores expected to pop up along the unincorporated stretch of Delaware Route 1 that leads into the beach towns.

Then they’ll get high legally at their home or rental property, perhaps even on the lawn or outdoor patio.

“We’re fine with that,’’ Mills said. “Our goal is just not to have those type of businesses associated with the incorporated city of Rehoboth Beach.”

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