NEPTUNE TOWNSHIP, N.J. — The new cannabis shop on Route 66 had a spa aesthetic: light-colored wood, spacious layout, greenery. Two miles outside Asbury Park, Zen Leaf Neptune was greeted warmly the other day by tourism officials of the iconic Jersey Shore town.
“It’s a revenue driver,” said Sylvia Sylvia, (@sylviasquared) executive director of Asbury Park’s Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a legal business, and that’s what a chamber of commerce does. We support businesses. We support tourism.”
But don’t look for Stone Harbor to become Stoned Harbor any time soon.
Elsewhere at the Shore, towns are busy trying to opt out of the new adult-use cannabis laws passed this year in New Jersey, which give municipalities 180 days (until August) to pass laws to keep dispensaries out of their towns, or lose that option for the next five years.
That includes towns where voters decided in favor of the law — all but three, actually, of the 565 municipalities in New Jersey, according to a recent analysis by the Asbury Park Press — but whose elected officials are now taking steps to exclude retail adult-use dispensaries.
In Ocean City, a famously-dry Cape May County Shore town that still bans alcohol sales, Mayor Jay Gillian said the new legalization laws, which also place limits on the policing of marijuana smoking, “disgust me.”
Councilman Jody Levchuk, who said he is a medical marijuana patient himself, worried about “a smoke-fest” on the beaches and boardwalk of Ocean City, and that the carefully cultivated image of the town, dubbed America’s Favorite Family Resort, would suffer.
Council president Bobby Barr said last summer brought an influx of weed smokers to the boardwalk ahead of any legalization.
“I observed it myself,” he said in an interview. “You could smell marijuana. It was clear people were indulging on the boardwalk. It’s not something we want to perpetuate or encourage.”
Earlier this month, Ocean City adopted an ordinance that bans businesses that cultivate, manufacture, test, or sell cannabis. Other Shore towns, including Stone Harbor, Sea Isle City, Wildwood Crest, and Cape May, are well along in the process of passing similar ordinances.
Other towns, including Ventnor, Wildwood, and North Wildwood, are likely to follow, as the new state law would allow a town to opt back in at any time, but not opt out after the 180 days have passed. The towns cannot prevent the delivery of cannabis. (Alcohol is also routinely delivered to people in Ocean City.)
“We feel in Ocean City that the sale of marijuana is not something we want to partake in,” Barr said. “We feel strongly about the brand we have, and we want to keep it.”
Even in Ventnor, a town with 13 liquor stores and three new liquor licenses for restaurants, and whose voters were 70.8% in favor of the cannabis law, Mayor Beth Holzman said the town was likely to opt out.
“If you say yes, you’re locked in for five years,” she said. “We want to see what could happen elsewhere, get more of a pulse. Personally, I’m not against it.”
For now, Zen Leaf outside of Asbury Park is still limited to medical marijuana. But the old Smashburger site on a main route to the Shore seems a likely candidate for adult-use sales once the regulations are in place for New Jersey’s new cannabis industry. (The commission in charge of getting the cannabis law up and running has a ways to go.)
At a recent ribbon cutting, Sylvia even brought along the giant scissors. She laughed off worries expressed by elected officials in other Shore towns that cannabis sales would negatively affect the carefully cultivated images of the beaches and boardwalks.
“We don’t have a fear of that,” she said.
What, after all, would cannabis shops bring to Asbury Park?
“Consumers!” Sylvia said, and the three chamber folks all laughed. “Baby boomers and then the next generation.”
Zen Leaf, which, in addition to Neptune, also has a dispensary in Elizabeth, will bring its Sephora-meets-Apple aesthetic to a third New Jersey location in Lawrence at the end of May.
“We looked at quite a few municipalities up and down the Shore,” said Anthony Marsico, executive vice president of Verano Holdings, which owns Zen Leaf Dispensaries. “Neptune was one of the few that was allowing for this use. I think we bring a lot to the community. We’ve created over 30 jobs here currently. With adult use, that can grow to 70 or 80.”
The jobs start at $14 an hour, and managers are earning between $50,000 and $60,000, he said.
Marsico said the municipalities that are opting out now may end up missing the boat.
“I think the train has left the station,” he said. “They have an opportunity to bring a viable business, jobs, and tax revenue to their cities. They’re missing out on that if they don’t opt in.”
Atlantic City is another Shore town that will welcome the adult-use cannabis business, not to mention the 2% tax that municipalities will be allowed to impose on sales.
There’s already a medical dispensary on the Boardwalk, the Botanist, and another one is planned on New York Avenue, in the heart of the city’s recently revitalized Orange Loop entertainment district of restaurants, bars, and music venues along New York and Tennessee Avenues and St. James Place.
Both are likely to convert to retail cannabis shops when the state’s new cannabis regulatory body completes its work.
“We’re all in,” said Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. “It’s going to create a new industry. We’re working on where the locations are, and how many, which is in our authority. As I stated many times, personally, I’m against it. But it’s for the greater good of the town. We look forward to the revenue stream.”
‘High and Dry’
Marsico, the Zen Leaf executive, said just because a town is dry does not mean it should automatically shun cannabis. One of the company’s first dispensaries was in a dry town in Illinois.
“The town welcomed us,” he said. “T-shirts said ‘High and Dry.’ ”
Marsico said cannabis offers people an alternative to both alcohol and to the opioids readily available from pharmacies in Ocean City and elsewhere.
In Cape May, the council banned all public smoking of marijuana, even though the new cannabis law does not allow that, and is likely to join other towns in a proactive ban on sales, said Councilman Chris Bezaire. He added that hotels could take a different approach about use on their properties.
“My take on it is, we’ll watch the surrounding municipalities and see what action they take,” Bezaire said. “Upper Township has already banned retail sales. West Cape May is entertaining the idea about allowing cultivation. The prudent thing is to not allow it, then go back and revisit.”
Even in freewheeling, decidedly not-dry Wildwood, where voters were 2-1 in favor of legalization, and where any extra tax revenue would be welcome, Mayor Pete Byron said the council was still likely to opt out, for now.
“If we don’t do anything, then it’s jammed on you,” he said. “A lot of people are saying we’re 100% for marijuana, but we don’t want a dispensary in our town.”
The same is true in North Wildwood, where Mayor Patrick Rosenello said the way the state law was written left municipalities feeling like they had little choice but to ban now. “They asked a simple question on the referendum,” he said. “All of a sudden there’s 15 other things they tagged on to that.”
Still, Rosenello said, if dispensaries work well in the places that allow them, “I think a lot of towns will embrace it.”