At a public meeting on Saturday, Princeton Cannabis Task Force Chair and Councilmember Eve Niedergang said the “consensus” reached by the 24-member task force is “overwhelmingly that the benefits of having a dispensary in town outweighed the bad points.”
The meeting, held in Hinds Plaza, drew around 25 residents. Several members of the Cannabis Task Force — a group that includes council members, non-profit leaders, and business and citizen representatives — listened and tried to address locals’ objections to the prospect of allowing marijuana dispensaries to operate in the town.
Many of the objections raised were centered on the health effects of cannabis use and the potential impact on children.
“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,” said Niedergang, who has chaired the task force since its founding in March, after New Jersey voted to legalize cannabis in a November 2020 referendum.
In Princeton, 78 percent of residents voted for legalization, according to Niedergang. In August, Princeton “opted out” of the New Jersey blanket regulations on marijuana after a state-imposed six-month window to decide on regulations, temporarily banning marijuana businesses.
Not opting out would have allowed any segment of the cannabis industry — cultivation, manufacturing, wholesaling, distribution, retail, and delivery — to operate in the town. Neidergang explained that the temporary ban was enacted to give the task force time to proceed slowly and deliberately on the issue and provide sufficient opportunity for public input.
“The issue that’s before the task force is whether to allow dispensaries,” Niedergang said.
Some of the benefits of dispensaries, according to her, include ease of access for residents to a legal drug they may “want or need,” the business community’s desire to bring business to town — especially in light of businesses struggling after the pandemic — and “to use this as a means to address some of the terrible things that have happened as a result of the War on Drugs.”
But despite the consensus in the task force, the majority of residents who spoke during the meeting said they opposed dispensaries in Princeton, especially in certain areas of the town. Most of the contention concerned risks for children and adolescents, who the residents argued are especially susceptible to marijuana’s negative health impacts.
Other topics discussed at the meeting included allocation of revenue from the two percent tax on prospective marijuana sales, a proposed cap of three dispensaries in the municipality, and zoning restrictions for dispensaries.
The task force will issue its recommendation on a dispensary ordinance to the town council this fall, according to Niedergang, but the decision on whether to adopt it will ultimately rest with the council.
University Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristin Appelget, a member of the task force, said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian that her role in the group is to understand how the town is approaching the issue and share updates with leaders at the University.
“It continues to be a banned substance on the federal level and because the University has federal funding then it will, as far as we know now, continue to be restricted on campus,” Appelget said of marijuana, reiterating the University’s position from February.
When asked whether the University will take a stance on any ordinances related to dispensaries in the town, Appelget said it will not.
“No, I think our position is that this is a community decision,” she said.
‘Within 200 feet of school’
Princeton Councilmember Michelle Pirone Lambros — one of three councilmembers on the task force — said that the group is currently looking at alcohol regulations around schools as a useful analog. Municipal law in Princeton mandates liquor stores to be at least 200 feet away from schools, Lambros explained, although when it comes to dispensaries, the task force may “consider varying that.”
Gabriel Saltarelli, a Nassau Street resident, has started a petition on Change.org to prohibit the sale of marijuana “near schools, playgrounds, and residences” in Princeton. Her petition garnered more than 400 signatures as of Sept. 18. The petition did not specify a requested distance between a potential dispensary and a school.
The petition also does not require signatories to confirm their Princeton residency — a fact that Niedergang noted during the meeting.
In a public comment, Saltarelli made it clear that in his ideal world, dispensaries wouldn’t come to Princeton at all, stressing that marijuana is still federally classified as a Schedule 1 illegal substance. Several residents, most of whom identified themselves as concerned parents, echoed that sentiment.
“Unbelievably, the task force is talking about locating these regional outlets within 200 feet of school or directly adjacent to a playground,” he said. “We know that if the product is sold here, it’s going to reach our children. Marijuana exposure hurts development, causes long-term and possibly permanent adverse changes to the brain.”
Christina Gates, who said she has lived in Princeton for 40 years, urged the task force not to approve zoning that would allow for a dispensary at the Princeton Shopping Center, saying she fears some sellers may “buy on behalf of the kids out in the parking lot.”
“Princeton Shopping Center is a place where middle schoolers go after school to hang out and have fun, it’s a place where parents walk all times of the day,” Gates said. “The last thing I think most people want to do is sit in the courtyard and have a lot of cannabis use.”
Others at the meeting pushed back on the critics’ logic, arguing that dispensaries may have no impact on marijuana use among adolescents.
Colleen Exter, a citizen representative on the task force who said she uses medical marijuana for a neurological condition, said she first entered the committee, “very much on the fence about the issues.”
“I think it’s more important to control our kids’ exposure and education around [cannabis use],” Exter said. “That’s why I have come to believe that to responsibly have a cannabis dispensary in our town is not something that’s going to damage our children, but something that’s going to help them learn to grow up responsibly around a new legalized drug in our state.”
Exter also stressed that the entry-point to dispensaries would be “highly regulated.” She cited the recent decline in drinking and driving rates among teens as an example of a success story of the potential of education around drugs and alcohol.
Council President Leticia Fraga stressed that Princeton teenagers already have marijuana readily available.
“Kids can get it, minors can get it,” Fraga said. “The difference that we want to make is that, [right now] what they’re getting, they don’t know what’s in it.”
Bernadette Alexander, a nurse and a citizen representative on the task force, added that dispensaries would allow for quality control of cannabis products — particularly important, in her view, for those who use marijuana medicinally and require specific strains that are most effective for treatment.
‘We have a representative democracy’
The meeting was the third of four public meetings convened by the task force, which was first established in March, following the legalization of marijuana statewide in New Jersey.
The task force’s priorities are three-fold, Niedergang previously explained to the ‘Prince’: whether and how the town should permit marijuana dispensaries, how best to educate the community about cannabis, and how to equitably enforce laws related to marijuana.
J. David Jenkins, another resident, said at the meeting that he has previously called on the town council to “survey” Princeton residents’ views on dispensaries — pushing back against the idea that Princeton’s 78 percent vote in favor of marijuana legalization during the statewide referendum constitutes a “mandate” for legalizing sales.
Niedergang said that such a survey is neither feasible nor necessary. The council, she said, “simply has no realistic mechanism to do any kind of scientific survey or data collection any time a controversial subject comes up.”
“The only time we’ve had a public vote on anything in this community was on consolidation,” she said. “We’re elected — I’m up for election in November, so feel free to express yourself. We’re all elected to represent the town, we have a representative democracy.”
‘How can the town allocate this revenue to social justice causes?’
Niedergang emphasized that the two percent tax revenue for the town from prospective marijuana sales has not been a strong impetus for the task force. Saltarelli argued that any tax revenue from the sales would be “trivial” compared to Princeton’s annual budget and thus should not be a factor.
How to allocate those revenues, however, is an important question before the task force, according to Lambros — and one on which, she said, it welcomes community input.
“It’s a big discussion,” Lambros said. “How can the town allocate this revenue to social justice causes, including communities of color that were impacted by the War on Drugs?”
Some ideas the task force has discussed, the councilmember said, include “re-entry services, job training, criminal record expungement, providing housing and economic development benefits, [and] reparations to Black residents.”
The state law, Lambros said, also allows the municipality to prioritize certain applicants for dispensary permits, including minority-owned businesses and those owned by local residents.
“But we can only do this legally if we have more applications than we have licenses,” she said, adding that this limitation was one of the reasons the task force is considering recommending a cap on the number of dispensary permits that can be issued in the town. The current maximum being considered is three.
The task force members also discussed zoning for the permits, including a potential restriction on dispensaries within 200 feet of each other.
Some of the areas that Lambros said are under consideration as zones in which permitting a dispensary would be permissible include: around Princeton Bottle King, the commercial area on State Road 206 near Northfield Bank, the Princeton Shopping Center, the non-residential part of Witherspoon Street, the commercial center on Nassau Street, the Jugtown District, and in the Dinky area.
Emma Moore, one resident who spoke at the meeting, said that as a non-driving community member, she would favor locations that are accessible by walking.
“It’s not necessarily easy for everyone to access cannabis businesses that are app-only or delivery only,” Moore said. “I think strong regulation but presence of physical stores will go a long way for addressing the equity issues that the task force has been talking about.”
The latest meeting was held outdoors at 10 a.m. on Sept. 18 in Hinds Plaza. The next public meeting of the task force will be held at the Princeton Arts Council, indoors with masks required, on Saturday, Sept. 25 at 11 a.m. and will be hosted by the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association.
Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a senior writer who has reported on COVID-19 policy, faculty controversy, sexual harassment allegations, major donors, campus protests, and more. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @rosesheinerman. She previously served as an editor of news and features and now assists with content strategy.