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Princeton Councilwoman Eve Niedergang. (Photo: Eve Niedergang).

Princeton council retreats from cannabis sales controversey

Progressive base town caves on dispensary permit, says it weed is not a big money maker and not a local priority

By David Wildstein, May 18 2022 2:02 pm

In a classic NIMBY move, an ostensibly timid but self-proclaimed progressive Princeton Township Council has caved to public pressure and punted on a decision to permit a local cannabis dispensary, according to a report by TAPinto Princeton, which covered a governing body meeting on Tuesday evening.

The decision comes despite overwhelming approval by Princeton voters to legalize adult-use, recreational marijuana in a 2020 referendum.  Princeton approved the measure by a 75%-25% margin – about four percentage points higher than Mercer County and eight points higher than the statewide number.

“I am of the mind that let other towns do it before us and let’s see what happens.  Let’s see what their challenges, or what works and what doesn’t work,” said Mayor Mark Freda.  “There is no rush for this.”

Councilwoman Eve Niedergang, the liaison between the council and the local Cannabis Task Force and a supporter of a cannabis dispensary in town, led the charge to push the measure off.

“I continued to believe that Princeton should approve and regulate its own cannabis dispensary — one that is locally owned, focused on customer service and education, embraces equity and racial justice in ownership, hiring and promotions and is committed to being a vital part of this vibrant community,” Niedergang said.

She noted that cannabis is now legal in New Jersey.

“This is the new reality, and when that all of us need to adjust to, regardless of our opinion on legalization, which is a done deal,” said Niedergang.  “Bringing in tax dollars to support racial equity initiatives and cannabis education, destigmatizing a drug whose illegality has wreaked havoc on  communities of color in this country and in the state, and impetus to start a conversation with our children about substance use and abuse.”

But Niedergang then put a halt to a local dispensary.

“I am recommending that we not move forward with and enabling ordinance for retail cannabis sales at this time. I come to this decision because the impact of this issue on the Community has been disturbingly and perhaps uniquely divisive,” she said.  “It is also consumed a tremendous amount of Council time and bandwidth, mine especially, and it is not even one of council’s key goals for the year.”

The TAPinto Princeton reporter, Richard Rein, noted that “without Niedergang’ s support, the proposal had virtually no chance.”

Councilwoman Mia Sacks blamed Gov. Phil Murphy and the legislature for not setting up enough incentives for high-income municipalities to open a dispensary.

“The annual revenue that would come from one dispensary in terms of tax revenue would not even be enough to build one unit of housing,” Sacks said.  “The state has set this up in a way that really does not make it appealing or financially beneficial for towns, and they seem to be scratching their heads wondering why so many towns are opting out, and I think they need only look at how they structured it financially.”

Councilman Leighton Newlin, who was elected to the council in 2021 after a 30-year career running a residential community release program, disagreed with many of his colleagues.

“Marijuana is legal in the state of New Jersey now, and it’s legal here in Princeton … what I can tell you is that my belief, quite frankly, is that a great regulated, beautiful state of the art great cannabis store may be the greatest on planet Earth. Would be an asset here in Princeton.  I think it would bring new life to Princeton.” Newlin said  “I think it would bring new people to Princeton.  I do not think children would fall into a black hole.  I just don’t and I would also say, you know, I’m not trying to tell people how to raise their children, but if we are going to be in town, that grows into the future growth in the future are part of change and instead of us being changed adverse, we need to understand a smart growth is to manage smart change.”

Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that “no Princeton municipal official is going to win the Profiles in Courage award.”

“Despite legalization carrying all but one New Jersey town, nearly 400 banned cannabis businesses.  First, local officials blamed the state for not working out the details of how it would work,” Rasmussen said.  “But that excuse no longer holds up, since the program is now up and running.”

Rasmussen thinks that the Princeton governing body faced enough vocal opposition from the quarter of the community that voted against the referendum – Murphy won 80.5% of the vote in last year’s gubernatorial election — to make them back off.

“What it really boils down to is that too many Princeton residents demanded that their representatives not allow a dispensary in town.  Even though many of these same voters clearly supported statewide legalization, they apparently meant for the facility to go in some other town,” stated Rasmussen.  “As Pogo timelessly said, ‘we have met the enemy and he is us.’”

But Rasmussen doesn’t think the local officials will pay any political price for deferring local cannabis sales into the future.

“Voter contradictions are nothing new,” he said.  “Ask voters whether they want more services or lower taxes and you will get a resounding yes to both.”

The two incumbents up for re-election this year, Michelle Pirone Lambros and Sacks are unopposed in the Democratic primary and no Republicans or independents have filed.

The filing deadline for independent candidates in June 7 at 4 PM.

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