When I voted for marijuana legalization, it felt good to make a virtuous decision. I was confident that cannabis regulation and other kinks would get ironed out. Last year, cannabis became legal in NJ and municipalities began deciding whether to opt-in/out of hosting recreational dispensaries. A couple of months ago I learned that the Princeton Cannabis Task Force (CTF) was recommending to open 3 recreational retail cannabis dispensaries in town. Three dispensaries seemed like a lot for a small town. Then the Princeton Board of Education publicly voiced practical concerns, which the CTF elected to dismiss. This turn of events seized my attention, and here’s what I learned through my research:
Opt-in rate: Legalization is not a green light for commercialization, thus towns were given the option to opt-in/out. Although 67% of NJ voted to legalize marijuana, 71% of NJ towns opted out of hosting retail cannabis dispensaries. Many of our neighbors opted out of retail cannabis dispensaries, including: Montgomery, West Windsor, Plainsboro, Robbinsville, Hopewell. Some supporters explain the low opt-in rate as temporary caution, being that cannabis is so new in NJ. However, 67% of California towns, over 75% in Michigan, and 48% of Colorado towns opted out, and these states are years ahead of NJ. So, what are some lessons we can learn from markets that are way ahead of NJ?
Price of Hosting Dispensaries: The NJ State League of Municipalities (NJLM) found that 3% tax is not enough to recoup municipal costs. Nevertheless, NJ law allows municipalities like Princeton to charge up to 2%. Unlike Massachusetts, NJ law does not make room for municipalities to charge dispensaries “impact fees”. Interestingly, most other states charge significantly higher tax rates and have very different tax structures. Also, unlike NJ, other states spend cannabis tax money on schools, research, law enforcement, environment cleanup, drug prevention, etc. To complicate matters, CTF intends to allocate the entire 2% toward social justice causes (in addition to the state’s contributions), and does not commit to investing these monies locally in our community. The CTF is missing financial forecasting to determine the impact to tax payers or benefits to the Princeton community, other than the creation of a few dispensary jobs.
Legal Liability: municipalities with retail cannabis shops have seen a flood of litigation for a host of reasons. Just google it. Litigation is not cheap and will come out of the municipal budget. This cost is above and beyond the 3% of hosting dispensaries.
Parking and Sustainability: one of the stated aspirations of the CTF, is for Princeton to be a location that caters to a variety of people and tastes. Putting aside why Princeton should cater to this specific demand when there are more attractive alternatives, a cannabis retail shop will undeniably draw more visitors seeking the products. As observed in other states, traffic and parking challenges abound. Princeton already has parking challenges, where will so many new visitors park and is the increased car pollution good for Princeton, a town that prides itself on being green? While we’re on the topic of sustainability, did you know that marijuana is the most energy intensive crop in the U.S.? Promoting its use in town would increase usage, thereby boosting demand and increasing our carbon footprint. Is Princeton for sustainability or for cannabis retail?
Potency Regulation: THC content of the marijuana in the 80’s was less than 2%. Today, it is normal to find marijuana with a THC content of over 20%. There are no clear guidelines or regulations from government officials. “The more potent a drug is, the stronger the possibility of addiction and the more likely the person will continue to purchase and use the product.” [“The Problem with the Current High Potency THC Marijuana from the Perspective of an Addiction Psychiatrist”, NCBI, Nov-Dec 2018]. NJ law does require cannabis packaging to be labeled so that THC concentration will be visible however, there are still no safety guidelines. Guidelines are very important because, according to the Yale Medicine Cannabis/Marijuana Use Disorder homepage: 10% of people who begin smoking cannabis will become addicted, and 30% of current users meet the criteria for addiction. Also, the site points out that people in mid-to-late adolescence are most likely to begin using cannabis. Do we want to make addiction problems worse in our town by making marijuana even more accessible in our community? Princeton has 6 public schools, many private schools and a large university student body under 21 yrs. of age. Curiously, Princeton’s CTF report makes no mention of how the underage will be protected.