Plans for Princeton Cannabis Dispensaries Face Resistance, Move Ahead Cautiously
By Donald Gilpin
The Princeton Cannabis Task Force (CTF) is moving ahead in preparing to recommend an ordinance to Princeton Council to allow up to three retail cannabis dispensaries in town, despite concerns and objections expressed by a number of residents.
The 23-member task force is scheduled to meet on December 16, when it will review its preliminary recommendations, which were presented and faced significant public resistance at a special Princeton Council meeting on November 30.
The CTF will be considering recent community input and discussing whether to amend or revise its recommendations before submitting them for further study to the municipality’s legal team, the Princeton Police Department, and zoning and planning boards, before presenting an ordinance proposal to Princeton Council in January or February.
Among the issues likely to be considered at the December 16 meeting are the question of the number of dispensaries allowed in town, with the suggestion that starting with just one might be wise; and the question of the required distance permitted between schools and cannabis retail establishments.
CTF Chair Eve Niedergang, who is also a member of Princeton Council, was not surprised that the majority of speakers — about 17 out of 23 — from the community at the November 30 Zoom meeting were opposed to allowing cannabis dispensaries in town.
“I think that people who are opposed to something are more likely to show up because there is change that they perceive as negative,” she said. “But there were a number of people who spoke up in support, and generally the feeling I’ve gotten as I’ve gone around town and most of the people who have contacted me are in favor.”
In the November 2020 state referendum on legalization of recreational cannabis, about 67 percent of New Jersey residents voted in favor, 71 percent in Mercer County and 78 percent in Princeton. “Cannabis is legal in New Jersey,” Niedergang noted. “That’s not in question, not up for debate.” But concerns about underage use and the question of a dispensary in Princeton continue to be matters of controversy.
“It is very keenly felt in a segment of the population that we shouldn’t be permitting dispensaries, but I think the overall community supports this and certainly the Council was supportive of moving the idea forward,” Niedergang added.
Gabe Satarelli, who has initiated a change.org petition with 656 signatures so far calling for prohibition of marijuana sales near schools, playgrounds and residences in Princeton, spoke at last Tuesday’s meeting. He warned about the effects of cannabis on children. He also noted that cannabis distribution remains a federal crime.
Most of the speakers in opposition at the November 30 meeting emphasized the dangers of under-age consumption of cannabis, and Niedergang, in a December 5 phone conversation, focused on that issue. “I fully understand that concern,” she said, “and no one is recommending that people who are underage use the drug.”
She noted that cannabis is currently not hard to find in any middle or high school in Princeton, and she emphasized the desirability of a legalized, regulated substance over a potentially more dangerous illegal, unregulated product. “When legalized, if the worst scenario comes true and some person who is over 21 buys it and shares it with people who are underage — not a great scenario, but at least they are getting something that is not laced with fentanyl or pesticides, and the person who purchases it knows the strength,” said Niedergang, who is the mother of adult children.
She continued, “I think New Jersey is one of many states that have recognized that the ‘just say no’ approach does not work.” Niedergang reiterated the findings of the CTF, as reported by a number of task force members, that in states that have legalized cannabis, underage use has either stayed about the same or gone down since legalization.
The CTF has met regularly since last spring, about three times a month in recent months. Niedergang praised the dedication and abilities of the task force. “A lot of people have put in a tremendous number of hours doing research on comparable towns and doing research into the medical literature, and making sure that our understanding of the state law is accurate. It really has been a group that has dug in.” Niedergang also commented on the surprising level of agreement among the 23. “All have been supportive of this particular path, with normal concerns about people misusing this drug,” said Niedergang.
Research, as reported by CTF member Milan Vaclavik at the November 30 meeting, included investigation of the consequences of dispensaries opened recently in college towns of similar size and similar demographics in Massachusetts and Maine. The CTF also consulted with officials and local police in Cranbury and Lawrence townships, where dispensaries have opened.
Niedergang emphasized that the CTF is not considering on-premises consumption at this time. Future issues on the CTF agenda for later next year will probably include the possibility of Princeton allowing other aspects of the cannabis industry, what to do with the two percent tax that Princeton would collect from the dispensaries (with an anticipated focus on equity and education), and how to make sure that education materials and opportunities are delivered throughout the community.
A number of the speakers expressing concerns at the November 30 meeting identified themselves as Asian Americans, and the question was raised as to why there are no Asian Americans on the Princeton Council or the CTF. It has been apparent since the September meeting of the CTF that the issue of cannabis dispensaries in Princeton is of particular concern to the Asian American community.
Niedergang stated that the CTF tried to include a diverse group of members and that membership application was open to all but that, to her knowledge, no Asian Americans had applied. Council President Leticia Fraga at the November 30 meeting and Niedergang both expressed the desire to make more connections with the Asian American community and urged all Princeton residents with concerns to participate in the December 16 CTF meeting (1:30 to 3 p.m. via Zoom, visit Princetonnj.gov for the link).