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Chicago pot sales would be delayed until July under proposal pushed by black aldermen

The chairman of the Black Caucus says they will introduce an ordinance Wednesday that would halt the planned sale of legal marijuana for six months next year.

Alderman Jason Ervin speaking during the Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall. Wednesday, October 28, 2015. Brian Jackson/ For the Chicago Sun-Times
Alderman Jason Ervin speaking during the Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall. Wednesday, October 28, 2015. Brian Jackson/ For the Chicago Sun-Times
Sun-Times Media

The 19 members of the City Council’s Black Caucus threatened to prevent citywide recreational marijuana sales from starting until July over concerns that no people of color will be among the owners of the businesses allowed to sell weed when it’s legalized Jan. 1.

Caucus chairman Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) bemoaned the lack of minority participation in the nascent pot industry as he presented a potential nuclear option for negotiations.

“With this current plan, there will undoubtedly be economic loss and opportunities for African Americans,” Ervin said in a statement. “There is currently zero African American participation among the 11 existing dispensaries — who will get the first shot at the market during the first year of legalization.”

He said the aldermen will introduce an ordinance at the City Council meeting Wednesday that would delay the legalization of recreational pot use in the state’s biggest potential market until July 1 “and use this time to find more equitable solutions.”

Ervin’s statement came after Tuesday’s Zoning Committee was brought to a two-hour halt as members of the Black Caucus met privately to discuss Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s latest zoning proposal covering where legal pot shops will be able to operate. Representatives from the mayor’s office and other aldermen ultimately met with caucus members in behind the scenes meetings that culminated in a series of changes to the plan, which would make the proposed downtown “exclusion zone” even smaller and give aldermen more control over pot zoning.

The resistance from the Black Caucus was rooted in members’ wariness that the existing operators of medical marijuana facilities in Illinois will get a huge leg up when recreational sales start on Jan. 1, an advantage that will last for months or longer before other operators are allowed to sell pot.

“We were fighting very hard to try to get an inclusion of the black and brown communities to be able to benefit from a product that has locked our community up. And now we’re being locked out of opportunities to be able to capitalize on a product that’s now been legalized,” Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said before the hearing was adjourned.

On Monday, Lightfoot announced a scaled-back version of her plan to prohibit recreational weed sales in the Central Business District. The original proposal’s “exclusion zone” for pot shops would have stretched from Oak Street to Ida B. Wells Drive and from Lake Michigan to LaSalle Street in River North and to the Chicago River in the Loop.

The modified ordinance would prohibit those sales north of the river from Lake Michigan to State Street, instead of LaSalle Street, and extend the northern boundary to Division Street, rather than Oak Street.

Under the plan previewed Tuesday, the southern boundary of the weed-free zone would be moved north from Ida B. Wells Drive to Van Buren Street.

Despite Ervin’s later statement, he told reporters after the zoning meeting that he planned to vote for the latest zoning proposal.

Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times that she’s sympathetic to the Black Caucus’ demands for “social equity and minority ownership” of the city’s recreational marijuana dispensaries. But she claimed the place to resolve those concerns is Springfield — not Chicago.

Nothing will be accomplished by holding up a zoning ordinance needed to put a framework in place to get recreational weed rolling by the start of next year, the mayor said.

“The way to accomplish what they want to accomplish — which is to create avenues for minority business people to come into this marketplace — isn’t to kill it in Chicago. The way to fix this is in Springfield through legislation.”

The Zoning Committee will reconvene at 9 a.m. Wednesday to vote on the updated zoning ordinance.