April 13, 2022

BOH Raises Red Flags on Cannabis

By Donald Gilpin

At a meeting last night that occurred after press time, the Princeton Board of Health (BOH) was expected to vote to recommend that Princeton Council delay licensing of cannabis sales in Princeton until health safeguards are implemented and further planning has taken place. BOH draft resolutions were proposed that would also urge Council to adopt a slate of a dozen least-harm cannabis usage guidelines (LHCUG).

“It’s simple,” said BOH Chair George DiFerdinando. “Minimize harm.”

Princeton Council, on March 29, listened to more than three hours of public comment and debate on the question of cannabis in Princeton and is planning to meet again on Tuesday, May 17, to continue listening, before eventually deciding whether or not to create an ordinance to approve retail sales of recreational cannabis in Princeton.

Last night’s 7:30 p.m. BOH meeting was scheduled to begin with a period of public input. At its February 8 meeting, the BOH created an ad hoc committee to research the health impacts of recreational cannabis use and to consider a recommendation from the town’s Cannabis Task Force (CTF) that would allow for up to three retail cannabis establishments in town.   

The BOH committee — which includes Ferdinando, an internist and longtime public health program director; Meredith Hodach-Avalos, an internist at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center; and Rick Strauss, a pediatrician — prepared a detailed background document and a draft resolution, which it revised following comments at the March 8 meeting and expanded to include detailed information on preparations that are needed to minimize potentially harmful effects of cannabis sales in Princeton. 

“Prevention first,” DiFerdinando wrote in summing up the committee’s cautionary stance. “Before considering approving local sale, assess current local use and local prevention needs,” he said. “Before considering if we should have one or more retail cannabis stores, we should plan, and plan to implement, education and outreach to assure that the public is aware of lower risk cannabis usage guidelines to prevent as many negative effects as possible of recreational cannabis use.”

In a March 11 phone conversation, DiFerdinando emphasized that there is no need to rush a local ordinance to approve cannabis dispensaries in Princeton, but it is urgent to address the effects of legal recreational cannabis.

“Recreational sales are imminent in Princeton,” he said, “no matter what Council does.  The state is not waiting for us to figure out what we’re going to do. We have to be ready because this is about to happen.”  New Jersey voters approved the legalization of recreational cannabis in a November 2020 referendum vote, the governor signed the necessary legislation in February 2021, and on Monday the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (NJCRC) approved seven medical dispensaries, known as alternative treatment centers, to begin selling recreational cannabis.  Deliveries could arrive in Princeton within the next few weeks.

The BOH committee’s proposal recommends the LHCUG, created by a consortium of Canadian health organizations and recently updated by an international group of organizations, researchers, and experts, as “an excellent framework for education of the public in Princeton, as well as directing us to those groups in Princeton most vulnerable to potential harms from RCU (recreational cannabis use).”

The committee proposal highlights two general precautions noted by the LHCUG workgroup: 1) “People who use cannabis need to know that there is no universally safe level of cannabis use; thus, the only reliable way to avoid any risk for harm from using cannabis is to abstain from its use;” and 2) ”Frequent cannabis use, and especially intensive use over longer periods, can lead to a ‘cannabis use disorder’ or cannabis dependence, that may require treatment.”

The first resolution proposed by the BOH committee calls for any action to approve retail sale of cannabis in Princeton to be “deferred until such time that realistic plans for increased education, outreach, access to acute and non-acute services, and data collection to assess the impact of recreational sale of cannabis in New Jersey and in Princeton, are available to be approved at the same time.”

That draft resolution expresses concern about those in the community most vulnerable to negative health effects from cannabis: youth, those pregnant, older adults, and those with particular mental health issues. It also warns that support for recreational cannabis use could create a perception that the town is encouraging cannabis use.

“Never be cheerleading,” said DiFerdinando in emphasizing the importance of “prevention first” and minimizing the potential harm from cannabis. “If you find yourself cheerleading for cannabis use, then you’re in the wrong place.”

The second resolution proposed to the BOH last night called for Council to adopt LHCUG guidelines in Princeton.  Noting a number of concerns about potential negative effects of cannabis and the absence of guidelines from the NJCRC, the proposal recommends that “in the absence of state or county resources, Princeton adopt the LHCUG to guide community actions around recreational cannabis education and harm reduction.”

Urging the community not to encourage or glamorize recreational cannabis sales, the second proposed resolution goes on to emphasize the need for specific planning and actions to minimize harm, to inform the community about risks, and “to counter commercial efforts to normalize consumption and promote increased use of the product.”  The proposal also calls for resources and training to enforce regulations, laws, and advertising restrictions and to monitor and report on the impact of recreational cannabis policies.

The ad hoc committee, in a response to questions from Council President Leticia Fraga, went on to warn that “an approval for opening an RCS (retail cannabis store) prior to discussion and planning for education and interventions could likely be read as enthusiasm for RC (recreational cannabis) sale and, consequently RC use.” The committee reported that its research was inconclusive on the question of the potential impact of the location or the number of particular cannabis stores.

Repeatedly calling for preparations to avoid potential harms, the committee noted, “There is strong evidence that recreational sale within New Jersey, which will include delivery into Princeton, will lead to increased use of cannabis products among all age groups legally permitted to purchase such products.”