For the first time, business partners looking to establish a cannabis dispensary and wellness center in Beach Haven brought their message to the public. On Oct. 27 at the volunteer company firehouse, the partners who comprise LBI Cannabis said their main purpose is to uniquely cultivate community wellness by putting cannabis business profits to good work.
“We do this by creating a new funding mechanism via cannabis business profits to pay for much-needed wellness, clinical and recovery services in our local communities,” Beach Haven resident Matt Bekelja, a communications specialist in the field of senior living, wellness and aging services and a founding partner, told the audience of about 40 people.
Other partners include his wife, Kristen Labin Bekelja of Beach Haven, a cognitive behavioral therapist; Bruce Lehrer, previous owner and operator of six Sunglass Menagerie retail locations throughout southern New Jersey, including Long Beach Island; Sean Maxwell, partner at Maxwell Homes; Mark Davies, an LBI real estate developer; Chris Weidling of Beach Haven, who has been exclusively working in the cannabis industry since 2013; and his wife, Andrea Weidling, who has immersed herself in holistic living and wellness.
Since then, the group has added Elizabeth Burke Beaty, founding executive director of SeaChange RCO, and Brittany Histing, holistic nurse and founder of Surfing Waves of Light.
During the presentation, the group said there were three main problems in local communities that they aim to address.
“Our community is suffering,” said Matt Bekelja. “Recently surged by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the documented rates of depression, anxiety, suicide and drug overdose are at record levels. Based on data from the CDC, a significant number of people in our community suffer with cancer, chronic pain, trauma/PTSD, or a combination of these conditions. These neighbors are also at higher risk for developing mental health and substance use disorders, and experiencing a lower overall quality of life.”
He said community services to meet these needs are limited.
“Getting an appointment with a therapist can require a person to wait for weeks to months before an opening becomes available,” he said. “Further, the current abstinence-based model of substance use recovery is a revolving door of relapse, and carries with it significant negative stigmas. The harm reduction model to treat addiction can meet people where they are and help them more effectively navigate their recovery in a holistic, personalized way. Local residents currently have no access to professionals who can integrate in-person cannabis consultation and product selection, wellness programming, and clinical and recovery services.”
In addition, Bekelja said people face barriers to services, and navigating the current insurance reimbursement model has its own set of challenges for policy holders and medical professionals.
“Individuals and families battling substance use disorder often have little to no insurance, and they are left without proper healthcare options to care for their disease,” he said.
The group’s solution is an integrated community wellness center funded by cannabis revenue.
“As this concept grows with the New Jersey cannabis market, we stand to significantly impact the well-being of many communities,” said Bekelja. “The state of New Jersey will soon begin accepting applications for adult-use retail cannabis dispensaries. These retail stores will soon be the only places that adults over the age of 21 can legally purchase.”
The group shared statistics supporting their efforts. For example, 39.5% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life. Up to 25% of cancer survivors experience depression and up to 45% experience anxiety.
“According to the CDC, over 20% of adults experience chronic pain, and adults over 65 experience the highest levels of chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain,” the group said. “Seventy percent of people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. Under the guidance and coordination of our doctor of clinical psychology on staff, each of our locations will offer group therapy services for people and their families affected by cancer, chronic pain, trauma/PTSD and insomnia. These services will be made available free of charge and void of the hassles associated with today’s health insurance plans and coverage availability. These services will take place in a combination of locations, including our wellness center and other community venues, such as churches, fire halls and so forth.”
“We’re not talking about a pot shop,” said Bejelka. “We have kids in school. The last thing we want is to have a flashing green pot leaf in the window of some of the establishments here in Beach Haven.”
Christopher Weidling said, “We have been asked a lot why Beach Haven. It’s because we live here and believe this is a good thing for our community and we want to bring the benefit of cannabis to the community we live in.”
Weidling is consulting with several other cannabis license applicant groups across the state in addition to the Beach Haven group. Andrea Holmes Thompkins, an applicant from Teaneck, said she was looking for leadership and guidance to help her bring a similar concept to North Jersey.
Thompkins shared that her son nearly died from smoking synthetic marijuana while he was a college student in California.
“Dispensaries are a great alternative instead of buying cannabis on the street,” she said. “You don’t always know what you’re getting on the street, and my son’s case it was almost fatal.”
During the meeting, questions were raised about the fact that during the summer, the Beach Haven Borough Council joined other local communities in adopting an ordinance banning all cannabis establishments, cannabis distributors or cannabis delivery services from operating anywhere in Beach Haven, except for the delivery of cannabis items and related supplies by an outside service.
According to the partners, the ordinances banning cannabis businesses in most cases are nothing more than procedural actions by the municipalities to buy time.
“Ordinances that ban cannabis now also preserve the municipality’s right to allow a cannabis business at any time in the future,” said Weidling. “There may be as many as 200 dispensary licenses awarded in New Jersey over the next few years.”
Questions were also raised about security and increased vehicular traffic. The group said the dispensary would only employ people who had passed criminal background checks and hire their own security personnel.
Bekelja said that while a specific location for a dispensary has not yet been determined, many residents had asked him to focus on property north of Bay Village to minimize downtown traffic. In addition, he said partners are looking to hire traffic control officers on weekends and also select a site with ample parking so that people would not have to park along Bay Avenue where parking spots are at premium during the summer.
Christy Hren, a former Island resident now living in San Diego, said dispensaries are common in California, noting that “they were a blessing to her family.”
“My father has used cannabis for chronic pain and much of his pain has been alleviated,” she said. “Other friends have used cannabis for post traumatic stress disorder. Dispensaries are a nice alternative to have.”
— Eric Englund