The school board members for the Princeton Public Schools were in agreement at a meeting Tuesday night about a statement to be sent to the Princeton Council regarding concerns about retail cannabis businesses operating in Princeton in the future.
School board members want a buffer of at least 1,000 feet for any cannabis dispensaries situated near schools. They also want a portion of tax revenues from cannabis dispensaries to be directed to the school district to be used for education regarding cannabis use and the effects of cannabis on health and the adolescent brain, and for policy reviews and training for issues related to students and staff suspected of cannabis use on school property. The school board also wants dispensary owners in town to strictly enforce laws prohibiting sales to minors.
More than 740 Princeton residents have signed a petition calling on the Princeton Council to prohibit the sale of cannabis near schools, playgrounds, and residential neighborhoods. Many residents who signed the petition agree that cannabis use should be decriminalized, but they say that doesn’t necessarily mean cannabis should be sold at retail stores on Princeton, or at least in certain locations in town.
Resident Shenwei Zhao applauded the board for the statement on Tuesday night during public comment. He asked how involved the school board has been in the work of the local cannabis task force. The former interim superintendent appointed a school nurse to the task force. There was no school board representation on the task force. Shenwei Zhao asked if the nurse who served on the task force agreed with the task force’s recommendation that a 200-foot buffer between schools and cannabis shops was sufficient when the school board is calling for a buffer of 1,000 feet.
Resident Bob Schwartz said the school board should not be getting involved in the issue.
Resident Jian Chen praised the board for the statement and encouraged the board to stay engaged on the issue. “Even though the district and the state voted overwhelmingly to legalize cannabis, it is not a refutation of the negative health consequences of cannabis, especially on underage users. Also, legalization doesn’t equate with normalization and commercialization of cannabis products.”
Resident David Jenkins said a minimum buffer of 1,000 feet between a school property and cannabis businesses should be enforced. He called the 200-foot proposal by the task force one of the most agressive proposals in the state, if not the entire country. In Maine, state law requires a 1,000-foot buffer. Many towns in California have zoning regulations providing for a 1,000-foot buffer. San Francisco changed its buffer from 1,000 feet to 600 feet in 2017. In Colorado, state law recommends a 1,000-foot buffer between medical marijuana facilities and schools, drug rehabilitation centers, and child care centers. But the law allows local authorities to set their own rules.
Resident Sheila Geoghegan asked the school board what other towns with families and large student populations are doing in New Jersey. She also asked whether school board members have reached out to other school boards to see how they are addressing the issue.
“Sometimes I feel like we think about this issue in our bubble without looking across the country or within New Jersey and other towns and how they’re wrestling with this issue,” she said. “I wonder if the school board confers with other school boards across New Jersey to understand what the zeitgeist on this issue is across the rest of New Jersey.”
Resident Rita Rafalovsky said she thinks cannabis deserves a place in our society, especially for medical purposes. She also acknowledged that wrong things were done in the war on drugs. “It’s certainly been legalized and decriminalized, and all those things are good things. And I think our community really very much supports that at large. A majority of us do support that,” Rafalovsky said. “But I think that many parents have a lot of concerns with the quality of the task force report that was done, and in our community, we are concerned about what controls will be in place once these cannabis dispensaries are out there.”
Rafalovsky said cannabis is readily available from dispensaries and can also be ordered online and delivered, and that access is no longer a problem. “But there are issues with making sure that our minors do not get access to it,” she said. “There are issues that come with the normalization of having this material very close to our children…In other places, in other states, it has been very difficult to police this kind of activity. If you look at Oregon, if you look at Washington State, if you look at California, you can see that some of the lessons learned on what worked and what didn’t.”
The two speakers during public comment who spoke in support of the cannabis task force’s report were both people who want to open retail cannabis stores in Princeton.
Abigail Kalmbach, a graduate of Princeton University who has a doctorate from Northwestern University and is a research scientist at the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, told the school board she hopes to receive a micro license for a cannabis dispensary in Princeton. She did not mention in her comments that she served on Princeton’s cannabis task force but stepped down after she decided to open her own cannabis business in town.
“We need to take the intellectual approach to understanding cannabis before making any hasty decisions, and education is critically important,” she said, adding that a 1,000-foot buffer between school property and cannabis businesses is too much because it would eliminate a lot of potential commercial spaces in town as locations for a dispensary. “I also think that we should look at how Princeton can act as a leader in the community to select the right educators to realize how cannabis in Princeton can work and make sense for other towns and for state at large,” she said.
Smrita Choubey, a South Brunswick native and graduate of the business school at Columbia University who worked in mergers and acquisitions at American Express for four years in New York, and in healthcare investment banking at JP Morgan for three years before starting her New York-based businesses Veda Farms and Veda Warrior, said she hopes to become a cannabis entrepreneur in Princeton and distribute her organically grown “craft” cannabis in town. She said she will be building a network of organic cannabis farms following ancient traditions of India, where she said cannabis has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. She acknowledged it is important to develop a strategy that includes children and makes the community safe. “However, we have to be honest about the historical facts that are at hand here. Cannabis was a medicine for thousands of years throughout human civilization,” she said. “Only in the last 100 years was this really banned and outlawed out of our community for entirely racist and political reasons. So while I absolutely agree with taking a very measured approach that is intellectual in nature, I also believe that we should not make any hasty decisions without fully allowing an opportunity for local residents to get educated about this. And one of the education points is literally like, there’s so much medicinal use that has been thrown away. And if we could only educate our communities on how to use this mindfully, it does not need to be a drug. It has been used as medicine for thousands of years. So that’s where education really comes in.”
School district officials said their role is advisory and they have no official authority when it comes to the task force or the council’s decisions. The board members agreed to send the statement on to the Princeton Council and said they would be happy to have discussions with the council. School officials encouraged residents to express their thoughts and concerns with the council, which will take up the issue of cannabis dispensaries early next year. The last meeting of the cannabis task force for 2021 is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 16 vias Zoom. Attendees must register to receive a Zoom link.Attendees must register to receive a Zoom link.