Princeton Cannabis Task Force moves ahead despite objections

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Despite pushback from some residents, the Princeton Cannabis Task Force is going forward with its recommendation to the Princeton Council to allow up to three cannabis dispensaries to open in town.

The task force reaffirmed its recommendation to allow the retail sale of cannabis – but not to issue licenses yet for other cannabis-related businesses in Princeton – at its Dec. 16 meeting.

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The 22-member task force presented its recommendations to the Princeton Council at the council’s Nov. 30 meeting, which generated some criticism and some praise from meeting attendees.

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 Nassau Street and Harrison Street; the Central Business District; Witherspoon Street, between Green Street and Leigh Avenue; and Route 206, near Cherry Valley Road.

There would be no minimum distance from churches, playgrounds and parks, but the proximity of cannabis stores would mirror the regulations 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 task force members said that since there is no evidence that the 200-foot requirement for liquor stores had led to under-aged drinking, the same 200-foot standard should apply to cannabis stores.

Meanwhile, the Princeton Public Schools weighed in on the issue, and sent its three-point position statement on allowing cannabis dispensaries in town to the Princeton Council. The school board approved the statement at its Dec. 14 meeting.

The school board urged the Princeton Council to adhere to the federal 1,000-foot buffer, or drug-free zone, around schools. New Jersey has legalized cannabis, but it is still illegal to possess or sell it under federal law.

The school board’s position statement acknowledged that state law allows a legal dispensary to be located closer than 1,000 to a school, but there is no law that would require the town to do so – nor is there any law that would stop the town from voluntarily adhering to the federal drug-free school zone buffer.

Its second point stated that the school district should receive a portion of the 2% sales tax proceeds from the sale of cannabis in the cannabis dispensaries. The money would be used to pay for school and public information campaigns about cannabis and its effects on the adolescent brain.

In its third and final point, the school board’s position statement sought a commitment from the Princeton municipal government, the Princeton Police Department and the dispensary owners to enforce state law to ensure that no sales would be made to anyone under 21 years old, which is the minimum age to purchase cannabis.

At the Dec. 14 school board meeting, several attendees said they “applauded” the board’s position paper on cannabis dispensaries. Legalization of cannabis does not equate to commercializing it, and once a dispensary opens, it would be difficult to close it, said resident Jian Chen.

Shenwei Zhao praised the school board for its statement, and agreed that a 1,000-foot buffer should be enforced. But Abigail Kalmbach, who said she is interested in opening a cannabis dispensary, said the 1,000-foot buffer is “a little too much.” It would take away a lot of commercial areas where it could be opened, she said.

But the Princeton Cannabis Task Force was not buying any of the objections, and pushed forward with its recommendations – despite a suggestion by Princeton Councilwoman Eve Niedergang to consider revising it to address the concerns expressed by residents. She chairs the task force.

Task force member Milan Vaclavik said the group made its recommendations based on its research, and looked at the issue from multiple perspectives. He said he is not looking to modify the recommendations based on what he has seen or heard from the public.

“I stand by the recommendations,” Vaclavik said. They are only recommendations, and it would be up to the Princeton Council to accept some or all of them, he said.

Several task force members agreed with Vaclavik and indicated their continued support for the recommendations.

Task force member Tom Parker said the report was fact-based and supported by research.

“The outcry from the community seemed hysterical and scripted,” Parker said. Misinformation has been disseminated, which is not fair to the work that was done, he said.

Task force member Dean Smith said the group’s work was thorough. He said he was disappointed in the community’s reaction, and characterized some of the comments as “vitriolic.”

Smith said he was highly disappointed with the school board’s call to maintain the 1,000-foot buffer between dispensaries and schools, and that it was “unjustified until we view alcohol in a different manner.” Alcohol is more destructive, he said.

“I don’t think the evidence is there” that a liquor store’s proximity to a school has resulted in an increase in underaged drinking, he said.

“I think it’s a non-starter,” Smith said of the school board’s position that a 1,000-foot buffer should be maintained.

Niedergang said she emailed background information on the 1,000-foot drug-free school zone buffer to the school board and the “devastating effect” that the war on drugs had on Black and Brown people.

About 97% of the people who have been jailed for drug-related offenses are Black or Brown, and may have been caught up in that buffer, Niedergang said.

“I feel that people are speaking out so aggressively, that no amount of information we can provide will change their minds. I don’t see why we need to spend any more time on it,” Vaclavik said of the objectors.

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