Special Council Meeting on Cannabis Draws 345 Participants, Many Different Viewpoints
By Donald Gilpin
A special meeting of the Princeton Council on March 29 was advertised as “a listening session,” and there was plenty to listen to as many of the more than 300 participants in the Zoom session weighed in on the question of whether or not Council should allow zoning for a cannabis dispensary in town.
The meeting lasted for four hours, with the last three hours devoted to public comment, and when it finally ended at about 11 p.m. there were still 35 people with their virtual hands raised waiting to speak. In addition to the speakers at the meeting, 40-50 emails were sent to Council on the subject.
“Amazing meeting,” said Councilman David Cohen. “Attendance was about twice as large as at any meeting since I’ve been on Council. It’s great that the community is so engaged.”
He continued, “I was impressed at how many unique takes there were on the question, 50-60 public comments. That’s a testament to how complex the issue is. There are so many different ways to think about it.”
Princeton Mayor Mark Freda agreed. “I believe all of the elected officials were happy to see the level of community engagement during the meeting,” he wrote in an email. “At one point we had 345 people taking part in the Zoom meeting, and on top of that many, many people have emailed all of us with opinions, information on different studies, etc.”
He continued, “We are working on a date for continuing the meeting so the people who did not get an opportunity to speak can do so. The discussion went well. Numerous different comments and viewpoints were shared, and having that opportunity for the community to share their thoughts with the mayor and Council is important so all those different thoughts can be taken into consideration before a decision is made. All the interest and feedback we are getting is pretty impressive, and helpful.”
Council President Leticia Fraga also said that she appreciated the level of participation and the diversity of opinions. She noted that a follow-up meeting in the near future would provide Council with an opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback before deliberating over the question of whether or not to create an ordinance to allow retail cannabis sales in Princeton.
New Jersey voted in a November 2020 referendum to legalize the sale of recreational cannabis in the state. Under the subsequent legalization law, municipalities were empowered to control the cannabis businesses in their towns, including deciding whether or not to allow retail sales.
Princeton Council initially opted out of allowing dispensaries in order to give its ad hoc Cannabis Task Force (CTF), an advisory body, more time to study the question of how best to respond to and regulate the challenges of cannabis in the state. Lawrence Township, which has a medical marijuana dispensary on Route 1, opted in on approving retail cannabis dispensaries, but West Windsor, South Brunswick, and Montgomery all opted out.
In November 2021 the Princeton CTF recommended that Council pass an ordinance permitting up to three dispensaries in town, and the local debate heated up — at public meetings, through the media, and with signs on lawns and in public spaces.
In the November 2020 referendum vote, more than 75 percent of Princeton voters supported decriminalization and legalization of recreational cannabis in the state, but, as several speakers last Tuesday pointed out, that vote did not indicate support for dispensaries in the town. Many who oppose the CTF recommendation have focused their criticisms on the potentially harmful effects of cannabis on young people.
One speaker at the March 29 meeting proposed a Princeton municipal referendum on the November 2022 ballot posing the question of whether or not a retail cannabis establishment should be allowed in town.
In an April 5 email, Fraga, who is a member of the CTF as well as Council president, responded to criticism that came from several quarters about a perceived lack of inclusivity and diversity on the CTF.
“As with other task forces, boards, commissions and committees (BCCs), we never fail to announce when we are actively recruiting for volunteers to serve on our BCCs and task forces,” she wrote. “It is a time commitment and for that we appreciate and are grateful for all volunteers who give of their time to serve. We are in fact currently recruiting to fill vacancies in some of our BCCs, including our Human Services and Civil Rights Commissions, and I encourage anyone interested in local government and wishing to volunteer their services to visit princetonnj.gov and fill out an application.”
Fraga added, “I look forward to providing more feedback regarding the recommendations of the Cannabis Task Force at our follow-up meeting once we have finished with public comment.”