Could Pot Head Downtown? One Chicago Alderman Is Pushing For It.

Images of seedling marijuana plants
Images of seedling marijuana plants inside a nursery. Downtown Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, has renewed a push to allow recreational marijuana sales in the Loop. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Images of seedling marijuana plants
Images of seedling marijuana plants inside a nursery. Downtown Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, has renewed a push to allow recreational marijuana sales in the Loop. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Could Pot Head Downtown? One Chicago Alderman Is Pushing For It.

Downtown Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, has renewed a push to allow recreational marijuana sales in the Loop — the only part of the city where sales are banned.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has long been opposed to the idea. More recently, she characterized the alderman’s efforts as an attempt to turn Michigan Avenue into a “pot paradise.” She added that concessions had already been made to the “downtown alderman” to allow sales in the River North neighborhood located just outside the Loop.

The alderman responded to the mayor’s comments by changing his Twitter picture into a mock-city seal, with the words “Pot Paradise Est. 2021.” In a tweet responding to the mayor, he added, “Um, No. I’ll keep that in mind the next time the Administration tells me ‘we’re broke’ and ‘have no choice’ but to raise your property taxes.” He has since taken the photo down.

The city code currently excludes marijuana sales from downtown because its “unique character and configuration and intensive pedestrian, tourism, and entertainment related traffic” makes it too congested for the sale of recreational cannabis.

Given the administration’s opposition and legislative confusion, it could be months before the ordinance comes up for a debate — let alone a vote.

Reilly introduced the ordinance to the License Committee last week. But his request is technically a zoning matter, as the portion of the municipal code he is attempting to amend is the zoning code.

Zoning Chair Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, told WBEZ that his staff alerted Reilly to the mistake and said it’s likely the ordinance will have to be referred to his committee. This could delay any action on the ordinance by at least a month.

Tunney added that the mayor’s opposition to the proposal doesn’t mean it will never come up for a vote.

“A lot of things go before zoning that the mayor is not a fan of,” Tunney said, adding that there could be a substitute ordinance following a period of negotiation. “That’s how the sausage is made.”

Under the city’s current marijuana regulations, the city is divided into seven regions. Each region allows no more than seven dispensaries for the first half of 2020 and up to 14 for the second half. The zoning code says after 2021, the commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development has certain discretion to amend the number of shops after a land and impact study. The underlying goal of these restrictions is equity, ensuring different parts of the city get a share of the pot-selling opportunities. If the ordinance is passed as written and the Loop is designated as a new sales-allowed region, there could be anywhere from seven to 14 new dispensaries allowed there under this timetable.

Marijuana retailers would still be dependent on how the local zoning and state licensing process plays out. A lengthy review by the mayor-appointed Zoning Board of Appeals is required before a retailer can open a pot shop.

In some affluent neighborhoods, like the Gold Coast, residents have hired their own lawyers and gathered significant neighborhood opposition to block these kinds of shops from ever getting a license.

Expanding marijuana sales could be a boon to commercial real estate investors who have been crushed by the restrictions imposed by the city and state to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Several major retailers have announced plans to leave Downtown Chicago.

Since marijuana was legalized, tax collections for pot sales have exceeded expectations across the state, putting cannabis tax collections at the end of 2020 almost on par with liquor.

A spokesman for the Magnificent Mile Association declined to comment on the matter “at this time.” Ald. Reilly was also unavailable for immediate comment.

Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow @claudiamorell.