Princeton Council holds forum on cannabis

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Backers of allowing retail cannabis dispensaries to open in Princeton, as well as those who are opposed to it, staked out their positions at a special Princeton Council meeting March 29.

The featured speakers ranged from the regional organizer for NORML – an advocacy group that has promoted legalization of cannabis, or marijuana – to the Maplewood deputy mayor, a clinical neuropsychologist and a psychologist who specializes in addiction.

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Those who favored allowing retail cannabis stores to open in Princeton framed the argument in social justice terms, pointing to the many Black and Brown people who were historically arrested for possession of marijuana.

Opponents countered that it’s about making money and ignoring the potential for mental health and addiction issues to develop. They also dismissed claims that allowing cannabis stores would promote social and racial justice.

A date for the continuation of the forum, which attracted nearly 400 viewers on Zoom, has not been set.

Chris Goldstein, NORML’s regional organizer, reminded attendees that New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing cannabis and allowing for its retail sale on a November 2020 ballot question.

Banning cannabis retail stores in Princeton won’t stop people from using it, Goldstein said. If they can’t buy it in Princeton, they will purchase it from a store in another community and have it delivered to their home.

Goldstein said the town would be missing out on the 2% sales tax that would be levied on the sale of cannabis from a retail store. He also dismissed allegations that cannabis stores would bring more crime. Store owners invest in significant security measures, he said.

One of the reasons to opt in and allow for retail cannabis stores is to encourage Black and Brown entrepreneurs to open a store, Goldstein said. Many towns are choosing to create “equity space” in their business districts, he said.

“This is less about cannabis and more about equity. Don’t Black entrepreneurs deserve a chance to be in Princeton? You can create equity space for small businesses,” Goldstein said.

Maplewood Deputy Mayor Victor DeLuca, who said he believed “strongly” in making cannabis legal and accessible, outlined the town’s approach to allowing medical marijuana dispensaries and retail cannabis stores.

DeLuca said the town initially banned retail cannabis stores because “we wanted to make sure we were always on control of the process.” Its first medical marijuana store recently opened.

The Maplewood Township Committee approved an ordinance in December 2021 to allow a variety of cannabis-related businesses – from retail stores to delivery businesses, cultivators, manufacturers, wholesalers and distributers.

The ordinance allows up to four cannabis retail stores and up to five delivery licenses. There is one license each available for a cultivator, a manufacturer, a wholesaler and a distributer, he said.

Would-be business owners/licensees’ applications are scrutinized and earn points, based on eligibility criteria, DeLuca said. They earn up to 60 points in areas such as describing storage and security measures, and a commitment to ensure that at least half of the employees are Maplewood residents.

Additional points are earned for being a social equity business, for being a diversity-owned business and for being a micro-business, DeLuca said. Town officials review the applications and make decisions on who should be licensed.

But Matt Bellace, who is a clinical neuropsychologist and drug prevention speaker, and Aaron Weiner, who is an addiction specialist and a psychologist and former hospital administrator, spoke to the reasons to ban retail cannabis stores in Princeton.

Bellace pointed to Sonoma, California, which had retail cannabis stores. Many of those stores struggled and closed. Big box cannabis stores moved in, so in his mind, Bellace said, “it’s all about money.”

“Any time you have a business that (offers) an addictive product, they need three things – young, vulnerable brains; high-concentration products; and heavy users. That’s what these businesses are all about.”

Bellace said that while cannabis has been legalized in New Jersey, it is still illegal at the federal level. Legalizing cannabis in New Jersey does not mean that every town has to allow for cannabis businesses, he said. It is not mandatory to “opt in,” he said.

“There are some myths we have to dispel. The myth is (legalizing cannabis) will remedy all racial and social justice problems we have in this country. I wish it were true, but sadly it isn’t,” Bellace said.

Weiner, who is an addiction specialist and licensed psychologist, said he decided to speak out because he has worked with people “who are literally the human fallout of these policies (that legalize cannabis or marijuana)”.

“It was absolutely mind-boggling to me to see the commercial addiction-for-profit industry pull the wool over a new generation of Americans. This is not about social justice. People think they are voting for social justice, when what they are actually voting for is THC commercialization,” Weiner said.

Weiner pointed to several recent studies, including one that shows that for people who live within a four-mile radius of a retail cannabis store, there is a greater likelihood of its use, heavier use and more problematic use.

Another study showed that one additional retail cannabis store per square mile in a ZIP code led to a 6.8% increase in the number of marijuana-associated hospitalizations – particularly in areas of color and low income, he said.

Weiner urged the Princeton Council to proceed “thoughtfully.”

“If you are under the impression that there will be no impact to this other than just taking current cannabis users and giving them a legal place to buy it, that is incorrect. The question really is, what are these consequences worth to you?” he said.

“There are other ways to achieve social justice. There are other ways to lift under-served communities than by selling marijuana to them and potentially addicting a new generation of young people,” Weiner said.

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