Marijuana Complaints Are Up In NJ Shore Towns

Seaside Heights Marijuana Complaints
Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Photo: Shutterstock

Towns receive marijuana complaints about pot smoking on smoke-free NJ beaches

Visit the Seaside Heights boardwalk on a windy day and you might catch a familiar scent wafting over the dunes, commingling with the smells of funnel cake and French fries.

Marijuana is nothing new to Jersey Shore towns, where the beaches and boardwalks set the backdrop for teens and college students cutting loose.

Even though it’s not new, some mayors and lifeguards say that since the Garden State legalized recreational cannabis, there has been a spike in marijuana complaints about the pungent aroma floating from the beaches.

“We get complaints from concerned parents and grandparents who say, ‘I don’t want my child to be in the midst of this,’” Seaside Heights Mayor Tony Vaz said. “What do you say to a parent? ‘We understand where you’re coming from. We’re doing the best we can.’”

After all, this is the Seaside Heights of “Jersey Shore” infamy, a summer party hotspot with a boardwalk where T-shirts saying “Smoke Weed Every Day” ($25), and coffee mugs declaring “High From The Jersey Shore” ($12.99) are for sale alongside seashell necklaces and boogie boards.

In this first summer since recreational cannabis sales became legal in New Jersey, several officials along the Shore have said marijuana use on the beach is up and so are complaints.

The conundrum: Smoking of any type is illegal there. Two years before New Jerseyans voted to legalize pot, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law in 2018 banning all smoking across the state’s public beaches and parks. Weed and vaping are included.

In fact, smoking recreational cannabis in any public place in New Jersey is not allowed unless a municipality expressly authorizes it.

Some Shore mayors said their towns address the issue with strong enforcement, yet others said they could use additional help since more people are smoking cannabis and not everyone is aware it’s not allowed on the beach.

“When cannabis got legalized, folks thought they were free to smoke it anywhere,” said Frank Marshall, associate general counsel to the New Jersey League of Municipalities, which represents the state’s 564 cities, towns, and boroughs. “That’s just not the case. There are limitations on it.”

Marshall said the League doesn’t track the number of complaints, but he has heard from local officials who say some visitors find marijuana is “more offensive than plain cigarettes” and the smell is “more repugnant.”

Vaz said Seaside has long received complaints about cigarette use at the beach, but cannabis complaints outpaced them this summer. In just one week in July, the mayor said, the town issued 30 summonses for cannabis use on the beach and boardwalk, where smoking is also banned in the borough. He said the volume makes enforcement a challenge.

“How do you control it when you have thousands and thousands of people?” Vaz asked.

Lifeguards and badge-checkers in Seaside told NJ Advance Media they have noticed an increase in pot usage not only on on the beach but also on the boardwalk. They asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak.

“For sure, more weed,” one lifeguard said with a laugh when asked about it. “It’s legal now.”

On a recent visit, a reporter noted the odor of marijuana several times along the Seaside boardwalk but could not discern the source. Several people were smoking cigarettes, however, including boardwalk shop employees and a bathroom attendant.

“You get a whiff now and then, but it’s pretty windy today,” said Jim Levensen, who was visiting with family from Maryland, as he cleaned the sand from his feet. “I can see it being a problem with little kids around.”

Kathy, a Toms River resident who declined to give her last name, said that was also her concern.

“The kids shouldn’t be smelling that,” she said. “(Marijuana smokers) can do it in their own homes, away from the kids.”

Further north up the coast in Asbury Park, marijuana complaints are also on the rise, said Sgt. Michael Casey of the city’s police department. Although he did not have the exact number of complaints, Casey said it was a large enough number that it came to the attention of police administration and city leaders.

The department, he said, has tried to curb use by informing people about the smoking ban.

“Some people aren’t aware,” Casey said. “We get a lot of people from out of state. We want to make them aware.”

In Atlantic City, Mayor Marty Small said they have been tempering enforcement with quality of life. While the city has received some complaints, he said, the number hasn’t been “overwhelming.”

“The voters of New Jersey spoke, but we don’t want it to interrupt beachgoers’ quality,” Small said. “Everything comes down to enforcement.”

Under state law, violators for any type of smoking face a $250 fine for the first offense, $500 for the second offense, and $1,000 for each subsequent offense. Towns are given discretion over how to enforce the ban and can set aside smoking areas.

Many Shore towns have no-smoking signs along the boardwalk, as well as police or code enforcement officers who patrol the beach.

Lifeguards said when they smell weed or get a complaint, they remind the beachgoer there’s no smoking on the beach — the same way they would for someone lighting up a cigarette.

Bradley Beach Mayor Larry Fox said signage and seasonal police has helped keep marijuana usage down in his “family-oriented” town.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Fox said. “I think our presence on the beach helps.”

Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Paul Kanitra said similar enforcement has also worked in his borough. Local officials, he said, have issued 200 tickets this year to people for violating no-smoking rules — 75% for vaping, 20% for cigarettes, and 5% for marijuana. Kanitra noted some violators use marijuana in vape devices.

The biggest issue, he said, is an increase in marijuana use among minors. Kanitra said he fears some juveniles are more likely to smoke on the beach because of lighter punishment for minors.

New Jersey law prohibits underage possession and consumption of marijuana, but those under 21 who violate the law face only a written warning on first offense. If they are under 18, the notice is sent to their parents or guardians. Subsequent offenses come with a referral to a community-based service.

Kanitra said he’s “not looking to demonize marijuana users” but suggested the state increase financial penalties for publicly smoking pot.

“There needs to be something to de-incentivize this behavior,” he said.

Vaz said the biggest problem with weed in Seaside Heights is police have other issues to handle and the local government doesn’t have the resources to hire more employees for the added response.

“We have to enforce that legislation to the best of our abilities, without adding burden to taxpayers,” the mayor said.

Marshall, of the League of Municipalities, suggested the state could provide funding grants for enforcement, including money for overtime. He noted the League passed a resolution a few years ago asking the state for a funding source to enforce the ban on cigarettes.

Murphy told NJ Advance Media he has heard from Shore mayors citing an increase in marijuana complaints — but he stressed this has otherwise been a “fabulous” summer, with “good weather” and “good business.”

“We will do a postmortem and figure out what else we could be doing,” the governor said about pot. “You have to balance a lot of things in life, and this is one of them.”

State Senate President Nicholas Scutari, D-Union — the main sponsor of New Jersey’s marijuana laws — suggested he’s open to addressing the issue legislatively.

“New Jersey is known for our beautiful, family friendly beaches, and that is certainly not something we’d want to see change,” Scutari told NJ Advance Media. “If some visitors are unaware that they are smoke free and more needs to be done on that front, we’re absolutely open to exploring that ahead of next year’s summer season.”