After months of study, the Princeton Cannabis Task Force has recommended issuing licenses for up to three cannabis dispensaries – but no licenses yet for other categories of cannabis-related businesses in town.
The 22-member task force, which was appointed by the Princeton Council earlier this year, released its initial set of formal recommendations at the council’s Nov. 30 meeting – amid pushback from some residents opposed to allowing the retail sale of cannabis.
The Princeton Council, faced with a state-imposed Aug. 21 deadline to decide whether to permit the sale, cultivation, manufacturing, wholesaling, delivery and distribution of cannabis, opted to hold off on permitting five of the six categories.
The Princeton Cannabis Task Force was appointed to study the retail sale of cannabis.
Task force member Milan Vaclavik told the council there are nuances in each of the six categories. The group focused only on medical dispensaries and the retail sale of cannabis because it would “best address the need of Princeton most directly,” Vaclavik said.
The task force will look into the other categories later.
Vaclavik said the task force recommended five commercial areas that could be zoned to permit cannabis retail businesses – the area around the Dinky train station on lower Alexander Street; the Jugtown neighborhood at the intersection of Harrison and Nassau streets; the Central Business District; Witherspoon Street, between Green Street and Leigh Avenue; and Route 206, near Cherry Valley Road.
Only one store would be permitted in a zone, making stores accessible to a greater number of people rather than concentrating them in one or two areas of town. The stores would be open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days per week. The hours would expand access to people who work different shifts, Vaclavik said.
There would not be any minimum distance from churches, playgrounds and parks, but the proximity of stores to schools would mirror the standards for liquor stores. A liquor store must be at least 200 feet away from a school.
The federal drug-free zone around schools is 1,000 feet, but there is no evidence the 200-foot requirement for liquor stores has had an effect on underage drinking, so the same standard should apply to cannabis stores, task force members said.
Vaclavik said while there is “very strong interest” in allowing on-site consumption of cannabis, that suggestion is off the table for now.
Cannabis is prohibited in federally subsidized housing and in the Princeton University dormitories, so allowing on-site consumption would enable residents and students to use it, he said.
If retail cannabis stores are permitted, there would be preferential criteria for certain applicants – Blacks, Latinos, women and disabled veterans – who want a license to open a retail cannabis store, Vaclavik said.
The task force is “very confident” there will be more applicants than available licenses, he said.
Preference may be given to applicants who have past marijuana and drug convictions, also. It would put the concept of social justice front and center, helping people who were disproportionately affected by laws that made possession of marijuana and other drugs a criminal offense, Vaclavik said.
Task force member Udi Ofer, who is a civil rights attorney, pointed to the disproportionate number of people of color who had been arrested for drug violations during the 50-year “war on drugs.”
Blacks and whites consume marijuana at about the same rate, but Blacks are more likely to be penalized, he said.
“Our role in Princeton is to make sure cannabis legalization is done in a way that addresses past injustices and looks to a future that is more equitable and just,” Ofer said.
Racial justice is the issue at the core of the discussion, he said.
On the potential for crime to increase if dispensaries are permitted, Ofer said several studies showed dispensaries had no impact.
He cited a 2019 federally funded study in Colorado and Washington which had legalized cannabis, and a 2018 study by the Rand Corporation – neither one of which found any impact on crime.
When the task force completed its presentation, several attendees spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting to push back against the recommendations.
Several attendees said the report was “one-sided” in its focus on racial justice and social justice issues.
It is unclear how a cannabis dispensary or a retail store would effectively address those racial and social justice issues, one attendee said.
Resident Rene Obregon said he supports the decriminalization of cannabis, but he could not support a plan to allow multiple dispensaries to open in Princeton.
Obregon said there is a cannabis dispensary on Route 1 in Lawrence Township. Princeton residents already go to Costco, Home Depot and Marketfair in Lawrence and West Windsor, so if they want to buy cannabis, they can travel to Lawrence to buy it, he said.
Obregon questioned how the dispensaries in Princeton would ensure there are no “straw buyers” – people who would buy cannabis to sell to minors. He asked whether there would be a limit on the potency of the cannabis for sale.
“Are we going to require the dispensaries to track the cities of the users? If you did that and you found that over 50% of the sales were coming from outside of Princeton, wouldn’t that undercut the rationale this is about local demand?” Obregon said.
The redress of inequity is through decriminalization of marijuana, but there is no need to support a cannabis dispensary in Princeton, he said. If the town wants to move forward with a dispensary, it could permit one to open and measure what happens in a year’s time, he said. Another study could be conducted.
“It feels very rushed to me,” Obregon said.
While the overwhelming number of attendees opposed allowing cannabis dispensaries in Princeton, a handful of residents said they favored it.
Abigail Rose, who is a physician, thanked the task force for its work and said she “absolutely 100% supports the task force’s recommendations.”
Rose said there is more and more cannabis being purchased that is unregulated and that has been laced with fentanyl. It is possible to die from just an initial, single ingestion or inhalation of fentanyl, she said.
Buying an “unregulated, controlled product” involves not only the risk of using fentanyl-laced cannabis, which can be fatal, but there are other chemicals it could be laced with, Rose said.
“In my opinion, having a place where there is a controlled resource where it is regulated (and) people are not buying things off the street is absolutely appropriate,” Rose said of cannabis dispensaries.
Wrapping up the discussion, council President Leticia Fraga said the council is looking forward to hearing more from the task force after it digests the comments and has an opportunity to look into the issues raised and to respond to them.