January 5, 2022

Evidence-Based Public Debate Must Ensue Before Council Votes on Cannabis Issue

To the Editor:

Our elected officials often point to various task forces and committees as vehicles for community members to shape town policies and as evidence of collaborative decision-making. The relentless push for retail cannabis dispensaries in Princeton while our neighboring towns have opted out calls into question the exact purposes of the Cannabis Task Force (CTF).

The 23-member CTF, according to its mission statement, serves in an advisory capacity to provide input to the mayor and Council on the major areas of concerns regarding legal cannabis. It was noted [Town Topics, June 2, 2021, page 9] to include local representatives from, among other areas, law enforcement, public schools, and social services. Clearly, public safety, underage use, and drug abuse aren’t “major areas of concerns” for the CTF as representatives from these areas had no presence in any of the CTF public meetings. Neither are there any meeting minutes or voting records that can prove representatives from these areas have ever meaningfully participated in the deliberation. It was no coincidence that the 90-minute CTF presentation on November 30 made little mention of public safety and the underage use portion of the presentation lasted less than 90 seconds.

According to Councilwoman and CTF Chair Eve Niedergang, one third of the CTF members were absent when the official CTF recommendations were voted on. Yet, that didn’t stop the CTF from calling their recommendations to allow up to three recreational cannabis dispensaries “unanimously supported.” This fixation over consensus is probably best explained by one CTF member who described one of the main objectives of the CTF as “manag(ing) the narratives.”

At the December 16 CTF meeting, it became all but apparent that this lack of representation wasn’t accidental when CTF members openly scorned the Board of Education’s position statement that suggests serious concerns of the potential negative consequences local dispensaries can have on students’ health and wellness, and voted again “unanimously” to “press on” with its original recommendations.

The CTF is stacked with cannabis advocates. The four citizen representatives picked out of more than 20 volunteers all happened to be strong supporters of local dispensaries. This kind of conformity is likely the reason that the question whether Princeton should allow retail dispensaries doesn’t appear to have been seriously considered at all. Councilwoman Eve Niedergang always goes back to this same line of reasoning: “There is cannabis in Princeton, and there will be both legal and illegal cannabis in Princeton, so that’s not the issue before the task force.” (The Daily Princetonian, September 9, 2021). If the subject of the debate isn’t cannabis dispensaries but gun shops, will the same logic still be applied?

It’s in the interest of the Council, mayor, and the whole community to ensure the objectivity of the CTF. If robust debate of the pros and cons of local dispensaries could not happen within the CTF, an evidence-based public debate must happen before the Council proceeds to vote on this issue.

Jian Chen
Ettl Farm