May 25, 2022

After Months of Local Discussion and Debate, Council Does Not Approve In-Town Dispensary

By Donald Gilpin

Cannabis, legal and illegal, is available and in use in Princeton. Sales of retail cannabis have been legal for adults in New Jersey since April 21, with the nearest store just a few miles away on Route 1 and deliveries available throughout the state. The aroma was in the air at the P-rade and at various other Reunions gatherings on the Princeton University campus over the weekend.

But there will be no dispensary opening in town in the foreseeable future, as the May 17 Princeton Council Virtual Special Meeting on the issue of cannabis retail provided a relatively quiet culmination to six months of often fierce debate over the pros and cons of opening a cannabis store or stores in Princeton.

The meeting was advertised as a continuing listening session for Council. At the previous session on March 29, there were about 35 members of the public still lined up to speak at the end of a four-hour Zoom session attended by about 345 people.

Only 14 of the 35 returned on May 17, however, and after 45 minutes, with 13 of the 14 voicing opposition to a cannabis dispensary in town, the Council members began their discussion.

Councilwoman Eve Niedergang, who had headed the Cannabis Task Force that recommended in November 2021 that Council pass an ordinance allowing up to three cannabis retail establishments in town, expressed reluctant acceptance of the fact that despite potential advantages of a cannabis store in Princeton, that there was obviously widespread opposition and that the Princeton cannabis debate was too rancorous and time consuming.

She emphasized that the issue had had a “disturbingly and perhaps uniquely divisive” impact on the community and had taken a tremendous amount of Council’s time and energy.

“I continue to believe that Princeton should approve and regulate its own cannabis dispensary,” said Niedergang in a prepared statement, noting that cannabis and its challenges would exist in Princeton with or without a local store.

“Despite all of the above, however, I am recommending that we not move forward with an enabling ordinance for retail cannabis sales at this time,” she concluded.

Council President Leticia Fraga shared Niedergang’s concern over the anger often surrounding the debate. “Some of us have received a lot of emails, including pictures stereotyping and attacking individuals,” she said. “It’s upsetting to see that happening. Bias is troubling, offensive.”

Fraga added that she was more concerned about finding ways to control children’s access to marijuana than she was about whether there was a dispensary in town or not. “Whether there’s a dispensary in Princeton or not, we’re still going to need education and outreach,” she said in a follow-up May 23 phone conversation. “I’m mostly concerned with what we’re going to do to ensure that our children understand what is appropriate, that this is not meant for them, just like alcohol.”

Councilman David Cohen, stating that this has been “the most difficult and confounding of any issue I have faced in my time on Council,” pointed out “strong and valid arguments on both sides of the question,” with statistics and studies supporting both positions.

In concluding that now is not the time for Council to approve cannabis sales in Princeton, Cohen noted the potential negative public health impacts as well as a recent lawsuit against the town of Highland Park over an ordinance allowing cannabis dispensaries.

Expressing his consternation at the intensity of opposition and the inability to reach a compromise position on the issue, Councilman Leighton Newlin stated, “We need more positive positions. We need to meet in the middle to see what will work.” He added that a dispensary could be a significant asset to the town.

“A regulated state-of-the-art cannabis store would be an asset bringing new life and new people to Princeton,”
said Newlin. “I do not think children would fall into a black hole.”

Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros added her support to the Council members who were looking to move on to pressing matters beyond the current controversy. “This has been divisive for our town at a time when we need to be united in working together towards many goals that will impact social justice,” she said.

Lambros added that a dispensary would be unlikely to provide significant revenue for the town. She went on to urge the many residents who had weighed in on the cannabis controversy to stay engaged and get involved in other local issues in the coming months.

Councilwoman Mia Sacks noted that it would not be responsible or appropriate to disregard cautionary concerns from both the
Princeton Public Schools Board of Education and the Princeton Board of Health. “We should tread slowly with caution, and do due diligence,” she said.

Sacks also commented on the “strong sentiment” expressed by so many people and the vast amount of time that Council members and others had spent on the issue. “We have many responsibilities as a town, many stressors,” she said. “We need to prioritize. Our staff only has so much bandwidth.”

In summing up the proceedings, Mayor Mark Freda thanked the hundreds of people who had weighed in either by email or in person or by Zoom.  “The vast majority were very respectful,” he said.

“There are lots of reasons for us to pause, a whole bunch of reasons not to rush into this, a lot that still needs to be done,” Freda added.