OCEAN CITY – With the stroke of Mayor Rick Meehan’s pen, Ocean City could be rid of a problematic thorn in its side as early as Tuesday morning.
Councilman Jim Hall’s request for an emergency ordinance that would outlaw the sale or possession of salvia Divinorum within the town limits of Ocean City was answered with a favorable 6-1 City Council vote, with Councilman Joe Hall in opposition, at Tuesday’s work session at City Hall.
In essence, City Solicitor Guy Ayres will write the new ordinance, council will vote on it Monday night and it only needs Meehan’s signature to make it instantly illegal as per the town’s “emergency ordinance” policy.
The proliferation of the sale of salvia and its related paraphernalia in Boardwalk shops has been a huge talking point and growing concern for the “voting seven” and the local police department for the better part of two summers, according to Councilman Doug Cymek, who has been spearheading a not-so-silent campaign to ban the alleged hallucinogenic substance in recent months.
“This is going to become criminal with the stroke of a pen, so we need to figure out how we are going to usher this rule in and hammer out the details of how the first few days with this new law are going to look,” said Cymek.
Yesterday afternoon, the Ocean City Police Commission held an emergency meeting to discuss concerns on how to enforce the sudden change in local law, despite the product still being considered legal in the state of Maryland.
Some in the town have stated the desire to remove the product, while avoiding the “storm trooper” tactics of seizure of the illegal products in the first few days of the rule being enacted.
Merchants may not get any bit of leniency in enforcement of the new law, however, before misdemeanor charges, seizure of product, fines or imprisonment.
“If you feel as though this is an issue of public safety and that this is a dangerous product that puts people in danger, enough to pass an emergency ordinance, then there should not be any sort of a grace period [for enforcement],” said Meehan.
The police commission deliberated yesterday and decided to model the ordinance after the state’s controlled dangerous substance law. It was revealed at yesterday’s meeting that the County Commissioners support the city’s move and plan to follow suit with their own ordinance to govern stores outside the town’s municipal limits.
As a precursor to Meehan signing the ordinance into law, members of the Ocean City Police Department will invite the approximately 15 merchants peddling salvia to police headquarters on Friday afternoon to outline the ordinance. Additionally, it was reported at the police commission meeting that copies of the ordinance would be handed out to merchants over the weekend. The city is hoping for voluntary compliance, but officials confirmed at yesterday’s police commission meeting enforcement would be strict.
This is a problem that the council has long wanted to simply disappear and some are hoping that the sudden change in local law will usher in that swift change.
“The best we can hope for is that the merchants cooperate and the stuff is off of the shelves by Tuesday morning,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic.
Former Ocean City Mayor and current Delegate Jim Mathias got his bill calling for the ban of the controversial substance through the House level last year, only to see it expire on the Senate floor on the final day of regular session.
“We filed the bill last year with great hope and we have every intention to file it again this year,” said Mathias, “I applaud the Ocean City Mayor and Council for trying to regulate this on a local level and I think that if this passes it will send a clear message of the concern that is out there and help us in our efforts of getting our bill passed at the state level.”
In early July, the police commission invited Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd to its meeting to talk about the issue and try to find some sort of a way to ban the substance on the local level, despite the permitted use and sale of the product by the state.
Todd told the commission that as long as salvia was sold legally on the Boardwalk, the city could do nothing about the presence and sale of the paraphernalia that goes along with it.
“Families can now see young and old people sitting on the beach with their paraphernalia smoking things”, said councilwoman Mary Knight, “and that’s not the family image for Ocean City. I don’t want the new family that we spent so much money to attract from New Jersey or New York to have their Ocean City memory to be of a bunch of kids smoking out of a product that you would get arrested for in the 60s in 70s. I just don’t think it’s good for the town’s image.”
In a letter from the Attorney General of Maryland’s office penned to Mathias from Dan Friedman, counsel to the General Assembly, the town found the essential green light or loophole in the law that it was looking for, as Friedman stated: “In my view, the police power granted to each municipal corporation by the General Assembly authorizes Ocean City to regulate or prohibit the possession or sale of Salvia within town limits.”
Ayres’ stance on the issue differs from Friedman’s in this case, as he said that state law would, in his opinion, preempt any municipal law passed by the town.
“I respectfully have to disagree with Mr. Friedman’s letter, because I think it would still be preempted, but you never know what a judge will decide”, he said.
The presence of paraphernalia seems to be as concerning for town officials as the substance itself, and ridding the Boardwalk once again of products synonymous with illegal drug use, coupled with the uncertain nature and unregulated legality of the product may have been enough to call for an emergency ordinance.
“With salvia has come bongs, and pipes and it’s concerning our visitors very much,” said Hall. “I’ve been told by the shop owners that they can’t keep this stuff on the shelves, and it’s pretty hard to explain to a little kid what’s happening when they see five guys taking drags off a big tube attached to a pot, no matter what is in there. This needs to be done and done quickly.”
Salvia is illegal in 13 states, and Mathias says that Ocean City’s proactive approach could help pass his bill that would add Maryland to the aforementioned list of states.
“Whatever you can do to take anxiety out of the visitors is a good thing,” said Mathias. “This is a very important piece of legislation for Ocean City and they are taking great strides to show diligence, and exercise their commitment to public safety.”