The Princeton Council has stepped back from a controversial recommendation by the Princeton Cannabis Task Force to allow as many as three retail cannabis stores to open in town.
The Princeton Council reached its decision after listening to more than three hours of public comment on the issue at a special March 29 work session and another hour or so of public comment at another work session May 17.
Those who favor allowing retail cannabis stores to open in Princeton have framed the argument in social justice terms, pointing to the many Black and Brown people who have historically been 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 have also dismissed claims that allowing cannabis stores would promote racial and social justice.
In the end, it was Princeton Councilwoman Eve Niedergang – the chairman of the Princeton Cannabis Task Force – who recommended not moving ahead with the proposal to allow cannabis stores in town, during the May 17 meeting.
Niedergang said she appreciated the passion of the residents who brought up the topic and while she still believes that the council should approve and regulate retail cannabis stores for numerous reasons, she could not recommend moving forward.
“I have come to the decision because the impact of the issue on the community has been disturbingly and perhaps uniquely divisive,” Niedergang said.
Lawn signs had popped up all over town – some of in favor of the so-called “pot shops,” but most of them in opposition to the proposal. The signs were placed on front lawns and at key intersections in Princeton.
Niedergang said the issue had consumed much of the Princeton Council’s time and distracted members of the governing body from addressing other issues. Permitting retail cannabis stores was never on the Princeton Council’s list of goals for 2022, she said.
Princeton Council President Leticia Fraga agreed with Niedergang that retail cannabis stores are not a priority of the council.
While opponents claimed a retail cannabis store would have the potential to provide expanded access to marijuana for minors – even though buyers must be at least 21 years old – Fraga pointed out that minors already have access to it through other means.
“For adults, cannabis should be accessible, but it is not our priority on the Princeton Council,” Fraga said.
Councilman Leighton Newlin favored allowing at least one retail cannabis store to open.
Cannabis is legal, and a “great, regulated state-of-the-art cannabis store” would be an asset and bring new life to Princeton, Newlin said.
“I don’t see a problem (with a cannabis store). I don’t think children will fall in a black hole. I believe parents will protect their children,” he said in response to arguments that a retail cannabis store would lead them to try drugs.
“I think we should check the box, connect the dots. I do think one store to start off could be visionary and not take us down a deep, black hole,” Newlin said.
Councilmembers David Cohen, Michelle Pirone Lambros and Mia Sacks echoed Niedergang’s comment that the proposal to allow retail cannabis stores had created divisiveness among residents. None of them favored moving ahead with it.
“(It) has been the most difficult and confounding (issue) of any on my time on the Princeton Council,” Cohen said.
Allowing retail cannabis stores to open would “normalize” marijuana use and result in an increase in its use, Cohen said. Such an increase in its use would likely have negative health consequences, he said.
“I find compelling the argument that big businesses will especially target vulnerable communities for their customer base, as they always have when marketing addictive products,” he said.
“Any benefits that accrue to minority entrepreneurs or their employees will more than be outweighed by the negative impacts to their communities,” he said of the social justice argument.
Cohen said his father was a physician and pointed to the oath that doctors take – “First, do no harm.”
Lambros said the issue has been “really divisive for our town when we need to be united. We should be working on many goals that will impact social justice.”
She said the Princeton Council members listened to the public and that she was “really astounded” at the passionate arguments for and against opening retail cannabis stores.
“We need to move forward, not (be) torn apart over this issue,” she said.
Sacks said the Princeton Board of Health and the Princeton Public Schools encouraged treading slowly on the issue, and it would not be appropriate to discount their positions on it.
“There is more that we don’t know than we do know,” Sacks said.
While some proponents pointed to the 2% fee that the town would collect on each sale of a cannabis product, the amount of money it would generate is not significant – not even enough to build one unit of affordable housing, she said.
There are many stressors on the town and cannabis is not a priority, Sacks said. It is an issue that provides little tangible benefit, but has done much to divide the town.
“I would not be able to support it,” Sacks said.
Mayor Mark Freda thanked the residents who shared their views with him.
The common theme that runs through the issue is that “we don’t know what will happen” if a store is allowed to open, he said.
“I am of the mind, let other towns do it before us, and let’s see what happens. What’s the rush? A year from now, two years from now, who knows, maybe something will change,” Freda said.