NJ Marijuana Legalization: Will Legal Weed Make Asbury Park The Next Denver

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As more and more towns say no to legalized marijuana, is Asbury Park poised to become the legal weed capital of New Jersey?

It could turn out that way.

Asbury Park is one of only two cities in New Jersey where officials have talked openly about the opportunities associated with opening a legal weed dispensary. That enthusiasm — coupled with the city’s location and reputation — could turn the City by the Sea into one of the state’s epicenters for legal weed, New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association President Hugh O’Beirne said.

The city has a “natural advantage” with its location, a relatively northern Jersey Shore destination with a much easier ride for travelers from North Jersey and New York, O’Beirne said. The town of less than two square miles has a population of 16,000 people.

Further, it’s already a “cultural destination” that is drawing marijuana users – just without alegal place for them to purchase weed. In its 2017 Cannabis Attitudes Survey, New Frontier Data reported that 22 percent of respondents nationwide said they’d be more interested in visiting a state with legal weed.

“There are such tremendous cultural opportunities, and there always have been,” O’Beirne said. “Everybody knows the Stone Pony (music venue in Asbury) across the country, and that’s always been the case. It’s just sort of a natural cultural fit.

“Asbury Park is going to be a leader in this state on this issue, and I think it’s going to be a national leader – just like it’s been in cultural matters,” he said.

City officials have been responding to a seemingly endless influx of inquiries, with at least 30 interested parties looking to open a dispensary, Mayor John Moor said.

And he’s lost track of the number of meetings he’s held with both supporters and opponents of legalization.

The steady stream of emails, calls and meetings has led him to draw a line in the sand: The city won’t make any of the necessary zoning changes or meet with anyone from outside the Jersey Shore unless the Legislature passes a legalization bill.

If weed is legalized, the state would issue anywhere from two to 10 dispensary licenses per legislative district.

“Until the state decides something, I’ll meet with people if they’re local, but as far as California or Las Vegas or Florida I’m only talking to the locals,” Moor said.

Any legal weed business in Asbury Park is likely to see increased traffic, based solely on supply and demand: Most other Shore destinations – including Point Pleasant Beach and Seaside Heights — have passed ordinances banning cannabis-related business, including medical and recreational dispensaries.

“As more towns start to do that, Asbury Park will be that city that sees significant benefits,” said Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association.

Gov. Phil Murphy has vowed to legalize marijuana in New Jersey by year’s end, though a legislative fight has already ensued. Two bills sitting in the Senate and Assembly would legalize and regulate a marijuana market — with anywhere from 80 to 400 dispensaries — and the Assembly Oversight Committee is holding traveling hearings to take public comment on the subject.

But a number of prominent lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have signaled their opposition to legalization, including a group of black Democrats who partnered with New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy (NJ-RAMP) — an arm of national group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) — and instead called for decriminalization.

In Asbury Park, legalization is yet to win over some of the volunteers and community activists, especially those working with children.

“We advocate for developing the skill set to live a healthy lifestyle and focus on academic success,” said Douglas Eagles, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Monmouth County. “Anything that would detract that would be discouraged, whether it’s alcohol use, smoking cigarettes or smoking marijuana.”

Eagles declined to comment on legal marijuana dispensaries until he learned more about the process.

Asbury Park’s upside

There could be an upside for Asbury, at least on the financial side. Consider the city of Federal Heights, Colorado.

It’s similar to Asbury Park in both size and population, with just over 12,000 people living in the two-square-mile town. Asbury Park has the Atlantic Ocean as its main attraction, while Federal Heights has “Water World,” often ranked as one of the 10 best water parks in the United States.

But one thing Federal Heights has over Asbury Park is legal marijuana, and it’s been a boon for taxpayers.

In its 2018 municipal budget, officials accounted for more than $7.1 million in sales tax revenue, a “strong increase … primarily being driven by the addition of marijuana sales” at the five dispensaries there. The tax revenue is nearly 28 percent of its entire municipal budget.

“The cannabis consumer is our neighbor – they’re doctors and attorney and accountants and teachers,” Rudder said. “The only thing you’re going to attract is business for the local community, and that will only benefit the residents, the property taxpayers and the small business owners.”

One of those small businesses is Pipe Dreams Smoke Shop, a Memorial Drive retail store that’s looking to get into the legal weed business. The Memorial Drive store already has marijuana paraphernalia: Rolling papers are stacked on the shelves, while e-cigarettes and water pipes are in glass cases at the cash register. Local artists sell their paintings on consignment, hanging from the walls.

The one thing that’s missing is marijuana – but co-owner Kareem Elhamasy is already preparing for when that moment comes and he can apply for a retail weed license.

A security plan is largely in place and Elhamasy and co-owner Ali Mohamed have already networked with potential investors in hopes of securing the financial capital to win a license from state regulators.

The store, which opened in April 2016, launched a Change.org petition to show decision-makers that the support for a marijuana dispensary is there. Just under 300 people have signed it.

“There’s a lot of eyes on Asbury Park. We’ve been passionate about the industry since before it was the cool thing in New Jersey,” Elhamasy said. “Asbury Park is just a very forward-thinking town. There’s a lot of great, like-minded people. The amount of people that come here in the summer is incredible and it’s only been going up every year.”

The people are what make Asbury Park a “phenomenal opportunity” for legal weed, Rudder said. It’s the most diverse town on the Jersey Shore, with 37 percent of its population listed as black and 48 percent of its population listed as Hispanic. It also has one of the largest LGBT populations in the state.

And the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce boasts over 1 million visitors to the city each year, many of those drawn to the cultural attractions – the music, the dining, the nightlife – that often go hand-in-hand with marijuana. In 2016, Budget Travel Magazine named it the “coolest small town in America.”

But parts of the city, especially the largely black and Latino-populated west side, remain economically blighted in comparison to its flourishing east side waterfront.

It’s those areas where legal weed would make its greatest impact, said attorney Bill Caruso, a board member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, one of the state’s leading advocacy groups for marijuana legalization.

In addition to the jobs that a dispensary — or cannabis grow facility — could provide, other businesses could pop up to cater to the marijuana industry, Caruso said.

New restaurants that cater to marijuana users would have open service jobs, and manufacturers of marijuana products or packaging could look to fill industrial jobs.

And many of those new businesses? They could be the brainchild of someone in the west side, Caruso said.

“What you’re going to see is entrepreneurship coming out of those communities,” Caruso said. “There are different communities around the country, where there have been depressed areas that are on the verge of rebounding, and these types of facilities fit into the equation.”