A sign outside the Princeton Board of Education, which has urged municipal officials to enforce drug-free school zones and laws forbidding marijuana sales to minors, urges support for a move to ban weed shops from the town. Credit: Dana DiFilippo / New Jersey Monitor

When New Jersey voters approved a 2020 referendum to make recreational marijuana legal, the residents of Princeton emerged as some of legalization’s biggest champions.

Seventy-five percent of voters in this progressive college town gave legal weed a thumbs-up, compared to 68% of voters statewide.

But nearly two years later, as talk turns to where to put a marijuana dispensary amid the artisan eateries and designer clothiers lining Princeton’s leafy streets, critics of plans to allow sales locally are drowning out supporters of legal weed.

“It smells terrible,” said Paige Randall.

“Why would we bring pot shops into Princeton knowing they are uniquely attractive targets to criminals?” said Gabe Saltarelli.

“Having this available within a walking distance is not a benefit, especially for an addictive substance,” said James Hong.

The three Princeton residents were among nearly 350 people who tuned in to a hearing public officials hosted last week after Princeton’s Cannabis Task Force recommended opening three dispensaries in the 18-square-mile town of 30,000 people. More than 50 people sounded off for over four hours — and most of those who spoke want weed nowhere nearby.

Princeton is the latest town where cannabis critics are mobilizing to limit the sale of a substance voters overwhelmingly voted in 2020 to legalize. The anti-weed crusaders are packing public meetings to warn about the drug’s dangers and begging officials to keep cannabis businesses out of their towns.

In towns both where officials have approved a marijuana market within their borders, like Pennington and Livingston, and where they have not, like Mahwah, Verona, and Northfield, hundreds of people have signed online petitions urging municipal officials to prohibit cannabis shops altogether, or enact restrictions such as keeping them away from schools. The share of the vote in favor of the 2020 marijuana legalization referendum in these towns ranged from 52% (Mahwah) to 76% (Pennington).

In Hoboken, where the referendum passed with 84% of the vote, city officials are considering new limits on where cannabis can be sold in the face of vocal critics of local sales, especially a group of residents who object to a cannabis dispensary planned for the first floor of a mixed-use residential building.

Hoboken Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher defends the planned new restrictions.

“You can support legalization and decriminalization but not want it sold within the boundaries in your town,” Fisher said.

For veterans of the fight to legalize weed, the objections feel familiar. Chris Goldstein, a longtime activist with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, attributes opposition to legal weed sales to “continuing stigma and frankly, a lot of misinformation.”

“I have heard these same arguments literally hundreds of times in towns across the region,” Goldstein said. “The reality of this reform process is that it acknowledges that there are millions of cannabis consumers out here consuming cannabis. And we’ve all been keeping it a secret, because otherwise the cops come with guns.”

Conceding to caution, not critics

In some towns where legal marijuana won wide voter support but where local officials banned cannabis businesses anyway, town leaders say they were motivated more by caution, rather than residents’ complaints.

The state required municipalities to decide by last August whether they would allow weed businesses to open within their borders. Some officials said that deadline didn’t give them enough time to plan and tweak ordinances to ensure the marijuana market would be successful in their towns.

About 400 municipalities opted out, including Hopewell, where 80% of voters supported legalization.

“It was really mostly a matter of timing,” Hopewell Mayor Courtney Peters-Manning said. “We didn’t have time to get it together, so we felt like we were shooting blind.”

In Morristown, where 77% of voters supported legalization, officials were similarly worried and opted out, said Stefan Armington, Morristown’s council president.

“The intent was to move forward with recreational marijuana licensing. But there was a concern that we didn’t have rules in place — and the state hadn’t come out with their rules yet either,” Armington said.

Morristown officials especially worried about the impact on parking, he added.

In both towns, some residents balked at commercial cannabis sales. In Morristown, some warned recreational weed would increase addiction and imperil children, Armington said. Hopewell’s critics agonized over how close dispensaries would be to schools and whether the packaging of edibles might appeal to children, Peters-Manning said.

But the opt-outs were more of a time out, Peters-Manning and Armington said. Officials wanted to wait to pass any municipal cannabis ordinances until the state set its own regulations, and opting out bought officials time to tweak ordinances and plan more thoughtfully, they said.

“We felt like: ‘This is coming, whether we like it or not, and we should control it and put it in the right place and make sure we pay attention to what happens after it’s here,’” Peters-Manning said.

About 35 towns that had prohibited all cannabis businesses now allow at least one type, the Asbury Park Press recently found. Hopewell and Morristown have both reversed course. Morristown will allow two dispensaries and two delivery businesses, while Hopewell will allow two dispensaries and one cultivator business.

The hubbub in Hoboken

Opposition in Hoboken has focused on population density. The Hudson County city is one of the densest in the United States and the line between residential and commercial areas there isn’t always clear.

Although the city agreed to allow cannabis sales and its Cannabis Review Board already approved a dispensary, Fisher said some of her fellow council members are thinking only about the economic benefits of the new industry and forgetting about residents’ quality of life.

“People didn’t move into a party zone. They moved into a residential neighborhood. This is going to attract those 25- to 35-year-olds who want to get high and go to the bars,” she said. “I personally think that’s not great for Hoboken, and it’s going to accentuate that area as party central.”

Council President Mike Russo called the body’s move to limit weed shops “backtracking.”

“You can’t say you’re for cannabis and turn around and say, but you don’t want it here,” said Russo, a member of the city’s Cannabis Review Board. “I think this is a step back and it’s a disservice to our residents.”

The council passed an ordinance in August 2021 that didn’t limit the number of dispensaries citywide, but said they couldn’t be within 500 feet of each other. It passed overwhelmingly — and Fisher said she regrets voting for it.

Now officials are mulling measures to cap the number of cannabis shops to six, limit how close they can be to schools, define how cops enforce the public smoking ban as a nuisance violation, and notify residents of Cannabis Review Board meetings if they live near a planned dispensary.

Russo said he supports an ordinance banning smoking cigarettes and weed in public parks, but thinks the other legislation restricts the cannabis industry from succeeding locally.

“There’s some very valid concerns, but there’s a lot of misinformation flying around. All this is doing is limiting the legalization of cannabis, and from a social equity perspective, that’s changing the dynamic and limiting what we can do,” he said.

Fisher called the bills “common-sense regulations.” She’s heard from residents in her ward who are nervous about the smell of marijuana, do not want to encounter people smoking weed in public, and claim they’re being blindsided by all new dispensaries coming to town.

At a recent public meeting about a dispensary planned for a former bar and restaurant on 14th Street, residents commented for five hours about their fears of a dispensary in their residential area. Fisher said the debate opened her eyes to what Hoboken residents really want. She supports marijuana legalization, but doesn’t think Hoboken is the right place for it, she said, primarily because of the blurred lines between residential and commercial areas there.

“Where is that line in the sand in a community like Hoboken, between a residential and a commercial area? It’s not clearly defined, and that’s the agita we’re running into right now,” she said.

Resistance unexpected

Eve Niedergang is the Princeton council member who took on the task of figuring out the future of cannabis there as chair of the Cannabis Task Force, which officials created last year after opting out of the industry with an eye on eventually opting back in.

A longtime resident who has worked in educational testing, libraries, and nonprofits, Niedergang watched with confusion as lawn signs popped up around town in recent weeks warning about “too many unknowns” and urging passers-by to “save our kids from another addiction.”

“I was surprised,” Niedergang said. “In my mind, 75% of the voters in Princeton approved this. I feel an obligation to try to move it forward. I do feel that having a dispensary in town is reflecting the will of the voters and the majority of the population.”

But some voters say they misunderstood the referendum and believed they were voting specifically to decriminalize marijuana to help erase the damage the failed war on drugs did, especially in poor communities of color.

“We shouldn’t conflate the vote to decriminalize marijuana possession, of which I’m supportive, for approval for dispensaries in town,” Princeton resident Rene Obregon said at Princeton’s hearing. “Those are two very different facts.”

Goldstein dismissed such sentiment as “a false narrative.” The referendum clearly explained a vote in favor would be a vote for the personal-use market and for giving local municipal officials decision-making authority, he added.

Several people chimed in during Princeton’s hearing to say they knew exactly what they were voting for when they supported the referendum.

“We put it to the people for a vote. And those people have spoken overwhelmingly in favor of access to retail cannabis. And so, all these policy arguments are somewhat irrelevant to the question at hand, which is: How do we implement that constitutional amendment that everyone supports?” resident Mark Boulding said.

Princeton native Tamer El-Shakhs agreed: “We should not allow a small, specific, fearful group to derail healthy and reasonable local cannabis regulation and the will of the people.”

Beyond referendum confusion, cannabis critics say they have plenty of reasons why they hope consumers will buy their weed online or just drive elsewhere to get it.

Concern about children has dominated the debate.

“As a physician, I can tell you that there are harmful effects of habitual cannabis use, not only to adults, but especially to children,” resident Jason Rogart said at Princeton’s hearing. “And believe me, just like cigarette vaping and alcohol, if it is made more easily available, our children will find a way to use it and abuse it. Why expose our town to these risks?”

Goldstein, who lives in Willingboro, attributes much of the opposition to cannabis shops to “fear-mongering” stoked by out-of-state, deep-pocketed marijuana foes like Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

That advocacy group, founded by former Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, is based in Virginia but has supported local efforts to fight the cannabis industry. In Princeton, a Smart Approaches to Marijuana advocate from Washington, D.C., and an addiction psychologist from Chicago were among five people who gave presentations at last week’s cannabis hearing.

“It’s less vocal locals and more national organized groups trying to use these towns as pawns in their prohibition,” said Goldstein.

This story was published with the permission of the New Jersey Monitor.


Dana DiFilippo and Sophie Nieto-Muñoz

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable....