A task force in the small town of Whitehall, Oregon voted to recommend that a dispensary be allowed to open. Residents are pushing back against the decision, saying it will negatively impact their quality of life.
Princeton Cannabis Task Force Chair and Councilmember Eve Niedergang GS ’85 stated at a public hearing on Saturday that the 24-member task force’s “agreement” was “overwhelmingly that the advantages of having a dispensary in town outweighed the negative aspects.”
Around 25 people attended the gathering in Hinds Plaza. Several members of the Cannabis Task Force, which comprises council members, non-profit leaders, business and citizen representatives, listened to residents’ concerns about the possibility of allowing marijuana shops to operate in the town, and attempted to resolve them.
The health consequences of cannabis usage and the possible influence on children were at the forefront of many of the concerns voiced.
“There is cannabis in Princeton, and there will be both legal and illicit cannabis in Princeton, so that is not a problem before the task force,” said Niedergang, who has led the task group since its inception in March, after New Jersey’s November 2020 ballot to legalize cannabis.
According to Niedergang, 78 percent of Princeton residents voted in favor of legalization. After a state-imposed six-month timeframe to decide on rules, Princeton “opted out” of New Jersey’s blanket marijuana regulations in August, temporarily prohibiting marijuana companies.
Not opting out would have enabled any sector of the cannabis business to operate in the municipality, including cultivation, production, wholesaling, distribution, retail, and delivery. The interim restriction was imposed, according to Niedergang, to allow the task group time to go through the problem carefully and methodically while also providing enough chance for public participation.
The task group is debating whether or not to legalize dispensaries, according to Niedergang.
According to her, dispensaries provide residents with easy access 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 the opportunity “to address some of the terrible things that have happened as a result of the War on Drugs.”
Despite the task force’s agreement, the majority of people who spoke at the meeting indicated they were opposed to dispensaries in Princeton, particularly in specific neighborhoods. The majority of the debate focused on the dangers to children and teenagers, whom locals said are more vulnerable to marijuana’s harmful health effects.
The distribution of money from the planned two percent tax on future marijuana sales, a proposed limit of three dispensaries in the town, and dispensary zoning restrictions were among the other issues addressed during the meeting.
According to Niedergang, the task group will make a proposal to the town council on a dispensary law this autumn, but the council will ultimately decide whether to approve it.
Kristin Appelget, the University’s Director of Community and Regional Affairs, stated in an interview with The Daily Princetonian that her job on the task force is to learn how the town is addressing the problem and to provide updates with University officials.
“It remains a federally prohibited drug, and since the University receives federal money, it will, as far as we know today, remain prohibited on campus,” Appelget said of marijuana, repeating the University’s position from February.
When asked whether the University would take a stand on any dispensary laws in town, Appelget said that it will not.
She said, “I believe our view is that this is a communal choice.”
‘Within 200 feet of the school,’ says the sign.
One of three councilmembers on the task committee, Princeton Councilmember Michelle Pirone Lambros, said the panel is now looking at alcohol restrictions near schools as a helpful parallel. According to Lambros, municipal law in Princeton requires liquor shops to be at least 200 feet away from schools, but the task force may “consider modifying that” when it comes to dispensaries.
A Nassau Street resident, Gabriel Saltarelli, has launched a Change.org petition to ban the selling of marijuana “near schools, playgrounds, and residences” in Princeton. As of Sept. 18, his petition had received over 400 signatures. A required distance between a prospective dispensary and a school was not specified in the petition.
Signatories to the petition are also not required to authenticate their Princeton residence, as Niedergang pointed out during the conference.
Saltarelli said in a public remark that in his perfect world, dispensaries would not come to Princeton at all, emphasizing that marijuana is still designated as a Schedule 1 illicit drug by the federal government. That view was mirrored by a number of locals, the majority of whom described themselves as worried parents.
“Unbelievably, the task committee is recommending that these regional stores be located within 200 feet of a school or right next to a playground,” he added. “We know that if the product is sold here, it will end up in the hands of our kids. Marijuana use impairs development and produces long-term and potentially irreversible brain changes.”
Christina Gates, who has lived in Princeton for 40 years, encouraged the task committee not to accept zoning that would enable a dispensary to open in the Princeton Shopping Center, citing concerns that some vendors would “purchase on behalf of the youngsters out in the parking lot.”
“Princeton Shopping Center is a location where middle students hang out after school to have fun, and it’s a place where parents stroll at all hours of the day,” Gates said. “I believe the last thing most people want to do is sit in the courtyard and consume a large amount of cannabis.”
Others in the conference disputed the opponents’ argument, claiming that shops may have no effect on teenage marijuana usage.
Colleen Exter, a task force citizen representative who takes medicinal marijuana for a neurological ailment, said she first joined the group “very much on the fence regarding the concerns.”
Exter said, “I believe it is more essential to manage our children’s exposure and education surrounding [cannabis usage].” “That is why I have come to think that having a responsible cannabis shop in our community would not harm our children, but will instead teach them how to grow up properly around a newly authorized substance in our state.”
Exter also said that the dispensary’s entrance point will be “well controlled.” She highlighted the recent decrease in adolescent drinking and driving rates as an illustration of education’s potential in the area of drugs and alcohol.
Princeton adolescents already have access to marijuana, according to Council President Leticia Fraga.
Fraga stated, “Kids can get it, minors can get it.” “The distinction we want to highlight is that [right now], they have no idea what they’re getting.”
Dispensaries, according to Bernadette Alexander, a nurse and a task force citizen representative, would allow for quality control of cannabis products, which is especially essential for people who use marijuana medicinally and need certain strains that are most beneficial for therapy.
‘We have a representative democracy,’ says the speaker.
The conference was the third of four public sessions held by the task force, which was formed in March in response to New Jersey’s statewide legalization of marijuana.
The task force’s objectives, according to Niedergang, are threefold: whether and how the municipality should allow marijuana shops, how to effectively educate the community about cannabis, and how to fairly police marijuana laws.
Another resident, J. David Jenkins, said at the meeting that he has previously requested that the town council “survey” Princeton residents’ views on dispensaries, arguing that Princeton’s 78 percent vote in favor of marijuana legalization during the statewide referendum does not constitute a “mandate” for legalizing sales.
Such a survey, according to Niedergang, is not possible nor required. She said that the council “just has no practical mechanism to conduct any sort of scientific survey or data gathering whenever a contentious topic arises.”
“In our town, the only time we’ve had a public vote on anything was on consolidation,” she added. “We’ve all been elected — I’m up for re-election in November, so feel free to speak out. We have a representative democracy in which we are all chosen to represent the town.”
‘How can the municipality use this money on social justice issues?’
The town’s two percent tax income from potential marijuana sales, according to Niedergang, has not been a significant motivator for the task group. Any tax money generated by the sales, according to Saltarelli, would be “minimal” in comparison to Princeton’s yearly budget and therefore should not be considered.
However, according to Lambros, how to divide those funds is a critical issue before the task group, and one on which it invites community feedback.
Lambros remarked, “It’s a huge debate.” “How can the municipality utilize this money to support social justice issues, such as communities of color who have been harmed by the War on Drugs?”
The task group has addressed “re-entry programs, job training, criminal record expungement, giving housing and economic development advantages, [and] reparations to Black residents,” according to the councilmember.
According to Lambros, the state legislation also enables the municipality to give preference to minority-owned companies and those owned by local people when applying for dispensary licenses.
“However, we can only do this lawfully if we have more applications than licenses,” she added, adding that this is one of the reasons the task group is contemplating proposing a restriction on the number of dispensary licences that may be granted in the town. Three people are now being considered as a maximum.
Members of the task group also addressed zoning for the licenses, which may include a limitation on dispensaries being within 200 feet of one another.
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 the Dinky area are some of the areas Lambros said are being considered as zones where a dispensary would be permitted.
One person who spoke at the meeting, Emma Moore, stated that as a non-driving community member, she would like sites that are walkable.
“Accessing cannabis companies that are app-only or delivery-only is not always simple for everyone,” Moore added. “I believe that robust regulation combined with the existence of physical shops will go a long way toward resolving the equality concerns raised by the task force.”
The most recent meeting took place at Hinds Plaza on Sept. 18 at 10 a.m. The Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association will hold the task force’s next public meeting on Saturday, Sept. 25 at 11 a.m., at the Princeton Arts Council, inside with masks needed.