A Chicago Alderman Wants Tighter Control On Cannabis Shops As State Lawmakers Aim To Fix Equity In Ownership

Marijuana growing
Images of seedling marijuana plants inside the nursery, at Cresco Labs Marijuana Cultivation Center, in Joliet, Illinois on January 10, 2020. A Chicago alderman is proposing requiring new dispensaries in the city be approved by city council. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Marijuana growing
Images of seedling marijuana plants inside the nursery, at Cresco Labs Marijuana Cultivation Center, in Joliet, Illinois on January 10, 2020. A Chicago alderman is proposing requiring new dispensaries in the city be approved by city council. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

A Chicago Alderman Wants Tighter Control On Cannabis Shops As State Lawmakers Aim To Fix Equity In Ownership

A Chicago alderman wants to put a speed bump in front of cannabis dispensaries trying to open in the city until the state of Illinois can fix outstanding equity issues in the predominantly white and male pot industry.

There’s not a single African American majority-owned pot shop in the state a year and half after the Illinois law legalizing recreational cannabis went into effect. The law aimed to prioritize entrepreneurs who’ve been impacted by the war on drugs, which disproportionately targeted Black and Latino residents. But the state’s rollout has been marred by criticism and roadblocks due to provisions that many say serve to exclude local Black and brown owners.

“I’ve tried to explain to people that there was nothing in the initial cannabis bill that was for the Black and brown community,” said South Side Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th ward, who says from the beginning he wanted Chicago to take advantage of a provision that allowed local governments to opt out of allowing cannabis sales.

“And I stressed that over and over again … And now you see that they’re still no people of color nowhere close to having a cannabis license.”

Beale introduced an ordinance Wednesday that, if passed, would require dispensaries to get the ‘OK’ from the city council in order to open. That would be in addition to the extensive process applicants currently go through with a zoning board that gives the final word on granting the so-called “special use” permits needed to operate.

More local control proposed

Zoning is really the only check local municipalities have on dispensaries wishing to open within their boundaries. The state is solely responsible for issuing cannabis licenses, and the state law sets quotas for how many dispensaries can open in each region of the state. In 2019, Chicago further divided the city into cannabis zones, determining how many dispensary licenses are allowed in each area. But beyond that, a mayor-appointed zoning board gets the final word on new dispensaries, not elected aldermen.

“We need to opt out, period,” Beale said of his plan that would give the council the right to review permits. With that review, the council could halt permits if they felt the process wasn’t fair, he said. “And that’s what this ordinance will do, it will allow us to opt out for additional licenses.”

This power struggle came to a head at a recent city council meeting where what normally may have been a rubber-stamped zoning request turned into a 30-minute debate. That’s because the request came from an existing marijuana dispensary that wants to simply expand its location — one small aspect of dispensary growth that aldermen can control.

Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th Ward and chair of the council’s Black Caucus, urged his colleagues to deny the expansion. He asked Ald. James Gardiner, 45th, whose ward includes the dispensary, to delay the vote.

“We’ve got to solve this right now? Why, so other folks can get rich continuously?” Ervin said. “Believe it or not, I want to support my colleague, but I can’t be asked to support my colleague at the expense of the people we all represent … Can you wait for equity? Can we wait so that everybody can participate?”

Typically, aldermen will support the wish of the local alderman because they expect to receive the same deference for proposals affecting their ward. It’s an unwritten rule of so-called aldermanic prerogative.

Beale, who’s critical of the cannabis industry in its current iteration, abided by the norm, saying an expansion request from an individual dispensary is not the time or place to debate the merits of the cannabis industry as a whole.

“Now ain’t the time to take a stance,” Beale said on the council floor. “The time to take a stance was when the bill first came to us and we should have opted out until they fixed it. If we had done that, then Springfield would have hurried up and fixed it.”

In the end, the expansion request was approved 31 to 19.

Lawmakers push for equity fix

Meanwhile, Springfield could deliver a cannabis fix soon. A measure aimed at increasing equity was passed by the Illinois House and Senate this week, and is awaiting a signature from the governor, who supports it.

That measure creates new license lotteries with lower qualification thresholds. One major issue with the state’s previous lottery process was a provision that required a perfect application score to move forward. Two new lotteries require just an 85% score.

And one of the lotteries nixes a rule that allows applicants to qualify as a “social equity applicant” simply because they promise to hire people impacted by the war on drugs, as opposed to being impacted by the war on drugs personally.

In total, the tiered lotteries will help launch 185 new shops.

The state first attempted to hold a license lottery last summer, but was blanketed with criticism when it announced just 21 applicants would get the chance to secure 75 licenses. That’s despite the fact that nearly 1,000 applicants applied.

Beale, who spoke to WBEZ before the amendment passed the full Illinois legislature, said he doesn’t trust equity promises from Springfield.

“Until I’m confident … that this problem is fixed, we should not be moving forward with any special use licenses,” he said. “You have to prove to me without a shadow of a doubt that my community is going to be included in licensing, in distribution, in the growth industry.”

Beale was light on details on what it would take for him to withdraw his ordinance, or feel confident it’s no longer needed. But he said he’d at least like to see how the new lotteries play out.

Akele Parnell, an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights who worked extensively on the Illinois legislative fix, said he supports Beale’s idea to slow down cannabis industry growth as equity plays out. But, he said, “I’m not sure if we’re already to the point where it’s a little bit too late.”

More than 50 dispensary owners who run medical shops in Illinois have been granted licenses to open new recreational locations since it became legal, saturating the market as social equity applicants have waited.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Planning and Development said the city is reviewing the legality of Beale’s ordinance.

Mariah Woelfel covers city government at WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.