December 22, 2021

Cannabis Dispensaries in Town? Council Will Decide In Early 2022

By Donald Gilpin

Despite vocal opposition and widespread concerns, the Princeton Cannabis Task Force (CTF), in its final meeting of the year last Thursday, decided to stand by its initial recommendations, which would allow up to three cannabis dispensaries in town. There will be more discussion, public and private, in the coming month before Princeton Council takes up the issue and comes to a decision in late January or early February.

Among the most hotly-debated topics in meetings, social media, and the press have been the questions of whether Princeton should allow any retail cannabis establishments at all, whether one dispensary rather than three should be the starting point, and whether the required distance of cannabis dispensaries from schools should be at least 200 feet, as recommended by the CTF and required for liquor stores, or considerably further.

The 21-member CTF is only an advisory body, CTF Chair and Princeton Council member Eve Niedergang noted, emphasizing that Council will make its own decision and is not bound by any of the CTF’s recommendations. Council is expected to hold another public meeting designed for public input next month before deliberating and eventually coming to a decision.

More than 750 residents have signed an online petition calling on Council to prohibit cannabis sales anywhere near schools, playgrounds, and residences, and at their December 14 meeting the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) voted to send a statement to the Princeton Council calling for a buffer of at least 1,000 feet for dispensaries near schools.

The BOE also called on the Council to designate a portion of tax revenues from cannabis sales to go to the schools to support cannabis education for students and staff, as well as a commitment from the town to strictly enforce laws prohibiting sales to minors.

At its December 16 meeting, CTF members present were asked to weigh in on whether any of their recommendations should be revised and whether they should conduct additional research and possibly add an appendix to address concerns that have been brought up by the community.

Some CTF members expressed disappointment at the negative reactions from some community members. They all agreed that they should not revise any recommendations and that it is now Princeton Council’s job to decide what to do with those recommendations.   

“It’s part of a process,” said CTF member and Princeton University Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristin Appelget. “We were charged as a task force to evaluate the issue, gather data, and be advisory to Council. We’ve done that work over an extended period of time, and we’ve provided our report to Council.” 

CTF member Milan Vaclavik added, “We made our recommendations based on the research that we did. We spent a lot of time talking about a lot of different issues, looking at things from multiple sides. I stand behind the recommendations. I think we’ve done a really good job of trying to analyze all of the information that we have available. We’ve been very careful about citing studies. We realize there’s a lot of pro and con argument.”

Vaclavik went on to criticize some of the dissenting comments made at previous meetings for “cherry-picking” and “a lot of sensationalizing.”

Tommy Parker, who recently joined the CTF, also praised the work done, the research, “the fact-based evidence produced,” and the recommendations that emerged from that work.  “I absolutely would stand behind those recommendations,” he said, claiming that some of the “outcry from the community” is “feeding off misinformation.”

“It’s not fair to the work that you guys did to get to this point,” he added.

The CTF members who are also Council members — Niedergang, Leticia Fraga, and Michelle Pirone Lambros — did not take a stand on the question of whether to amend the CTF recommendations.

CTF member Dean Smith, in concurring with his colleagues, urged that they stand firm in their recommendations, stating that alcohol is far more destructive than cannabis. “I have yet to see from those in opposition any evidence that cannabis is more of a threat to youth, to the safety of the community, than alcohol,” he said.

Niedergang pointed out that the CTF will be continuing its work in the coming year, focusing on the follow-up issues of providing the community with educational materials on cannabis and focusing on racial and social justice in determining how the tax revenue from dispensaries, if approved, would be spent and how enforcement of regulations will take place.

Though not a meeting devoted to public input — community members will have more chance to weigh in at next month’s meeting — about a dozen audience members were eager to speak in the final 20 minutes of last Thursday’s session.

Wei Wu urged the decision-makers — in this case Princeton Council — to compromise, stating that cannabis causes more harm to young people than cigarettes or alcohol.

Sheila McLaughlin criticized the CTF for lacking any dissenting opinions. “The hallmark  of any good task force or any deliberative body is to have sufficient dissenting opinion, and you have none,” she said. “You’re all in violent agreement on this subject matter.”

Lisa Jacknow accused the CTF of being closed-minded and unreceptive in its responses to public opinion and of minimizing the effects of cannabis on children. She called for more community input and more safeguards to be put in place to protect children in the community.

Minzhi Liu and Qing Li both criticized the CTF report for insufficient references to research, and Liu called the report “one-sided.”

Shenwei Zhao and Jian Chen both criticized the CTF, questioned whether their process was democratic, and urged Council to listen carefully to the opposition voices. “The report is biased,” said Zhao. “It’s a product of your echo chamber.” 

Community member Abigail Kalmbach spoke in favor of the CTF recommendations,  pointing out that many safeguards would accompany any dispensaries in town. “Having a dispensary limits the kids from buying cannabis from off-market sources,” she said. “It’s a safer supply of cannabis, and there are a ton of rules required in order to enter a dispensary. Children can’t get into the dispensary to buy cannabis. You have to show proof that you’re 21 or older.”

Speaking in support of the work of the CTF, Niedergang emphasized, “Throughout this process the well-being of the community, particularly the children, has played a key part. Many of the people on the CTF are parents, so that well-being has never been far from our minds. We would never take action that we thought might be damaging to the community or to the children of the community.”