By Udi Ofer
On November 23, 2021, following seven months of deliberation, the Princeton Cannabis Task Force issued a report unanimously recommending that the Princeton Council allow for cannabis dispensaries in town. Princetonians overwhelmingly support the legalization of cannabis, with 75 percent of Princeton voters saying yes to legalization on the 2021 ballot, a higher proportion than the 67 percent statewide who passed the referendum.
However, shortly after the release of the Task Force report, a vocal group of Princetonians have come out against cannabis sales within city limits. It’s now time for the council to follow the recommendations of the task force and allow well-regulated dispensaries in town and to do so in a manner that will begin to repair the harm created by decades of a failed and discriminatory war on marijuana.
The 22-member Task Force, which I’m a part of, had been appointed by the Princeton Council and included members nominated by the Princeton Police Department, Princeton Board of Health, Princeton Public Schools, and Princeton Civil Rights Commission, among other municipal stakeholders. From day one, it has operated with the utmost transparency, with all its meetings open to the public. Four meetings – in-person and virtual – were held specifically to solicit input from the public, welcoming all voices and opinions.
The task force based its unanimous recommendations on three primary considerations, guided by the knowledge that Princeton is a place where residents are passionate about confronting racial inequities and that Princeton needs to play its part not just in principle, but in ways that have the power to change things.
First, the task force sought to remove the stigma around a product that is now legal in New Jersey, but its prohibition was used to unfairly target and criminalize Black and Brown communities. Historically, New Jersey has had among the nation’s highest cannabis arrest rates, and with extreme racial disparities. Black people in New Jersey have been 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite Black and white people consuming marijuana at similar rates. These racial disparities in arrests were not because of differences in consumption rates. Rather, they were driven by discriminatory criminal justice policies and practices.
While Princeton itself never had a large volume of arrests for marijuana possession, the trends in arrests did largely track the broader state patterns. Like the state, Princeton had persistent and even extreme racial disparities in cannabis arrests. From 1995 to 2019, there were racial disparities in arrests every year except for one, and from 2000-2013, Princeton had the second highest racial disparity in Mercer County. In several years, more than 50 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in town were of Black people. Princeton is about six percent Black.
Second, the task force concluded that allowing dispensaries would help to reduce underage access to cannabis by working to eliminate Princeton’s existing marijuana market, and by controlling who has access to it through a highly regulated market. Task Force members felt strongly about preventing youth usage of marijuana and ensuring safety. The task force believed that a regulated market would minimize the presence in the community of dangerous products as a result of the state’s strong product safety standards, making cannabis consumption safer for adult use as well and reducing the support for an unregulated market.
Finally, the task force sought to have Princeton proactively work to address the historical injustices created by the War on Drugs and its disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Research conducted by the ACLU has found that legalization on its own does not address racial disparities in enforcement. For this reason, the task force recommended that specific policies be implemented to prevent racial disparities in enforcement and to ensure equity in the cannabis industry. Moreover, it is vital that the revenue from cannabis dispensaries be devoted to Black and Brown communities historically targeted by the war on marijuana.
People arrested for cannabis in Princeton faced severe collateral consequences, including up to six months in jail, loss of employment and driver’s licenses, and loss of immigration status, financial aid and public housing, among other consequences, which has devastated lives and hurt communities. For this reason, the task force recommended directing cannabis tax revenue and impact fees toward reparative community programs that benefit people who faced the brunt of the war on marijuana. The task force also stressed the importance of issuing policies that would lead to equity in future enforcement of the law and equity in the cannabis industry itself. The people who were harmed by a discriminatory war on marijuana should now be able to benefit from a legalized market both by benefiting from the revenue and being able to enter the industry itself.
For the sake of racial justice, public health, and common-sense good policy, the time has come for Princeton to allow cannabis dispensaries and to do it the right way, with equity at its core. Doing so would allow Princeton to emerge as an active participant, and even potentially a leader, in an important national issue that has deep ramifications for racial and social justice. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized cannabis. Forty-three percent of U.S. adults live in a jurisdiction that has legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Ninety-one percent of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal for medical or recreational use. There are thousands of dispensaries currently open across the nation and they have not seen the doomsday scenarios the detractors have painted.
This is the moment for Princeton to shine as an example of smart government that is motivated by the values of equity and justice. The council should follow the recommendations provided by its task force and allow for well-regulated dispensaries to open in Princeton and use the revenue to begin to repair the harm created by decades of a failed and discriminatory war on marijuana in our state and in our town.
Mr. Ofer is a member of the Princeton Cannabis Task Force and is the deputy national policy director at the ACLU.