Banning pot shops from downtown ensures Loop remains ‘family friendly,’ Lightfoot says

The mayor also wants to ensure the shops are evenly distributed throughout the city.

SHARE Banning pot shops from downtown ensures Loop remains ‘family friendly,’ Lightfoot says

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal would ban pot shops from most of downtown.

Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday she declared the Central Business District off limits for the sale of recreational marijuana because Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park are “incredibly important” to the hotel and tourism industries and she wants them to remain “family friendly.”

Lightfoot said the goal of dividing the city into seven districts where legal weed can be sold — while excluding the downtown area — was to “share the wealth” and allow those most victimized by the war on drugs to “participate in all facets” of the nascent marijuana industry.

The so-called “exclusion zone” would stretch 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 Merchandise Mart, though, falls outside the exclusion zone and presumably would be a possible location for a pot shop.

“Right now, the medical marijuana businesses are concentrated on the North Side. We’d like to see the opportunities for economic development spread throughout,” said Lightfoot, who has accused former Mayor Rahm Emanuel of pushing downtown-centric development that neglected South and West Side neighborhoods.

“As you also know, the area along our Mag Mile and our parks is incredibly important to our hotel and tourism business. We want to make sure that those stay family friendly locations,” she said.

She said pot businesses could still open in locations in parts of River North, the West Loop and the South Loop.

“I think there’s plenty of opportunity there,” she said.

Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, said he needed to see more data on the impact on the hotel industry in other cities with legal pot, like Denver, and declined to weigh in on whether sales should be banned downtown.

“We don’t have a position on where and who should be able to sell it,” he said. “We are in agreement with her that we want Chicago to be popular with visitors, particularly with families. But I can’t say that I’m a marijuana expert. This is new to us.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) has argued that a city struggling to close an $838 million budget gap simply can’t afford to declare its Central Business District off-limits.

Reilly has argued that Chicago needs to have a “limited number, a couple” of downtown dispensaries “where the bulk of our commuters and our visitors and tourists spend their time and money.”

Lightfoot said she’s “not so sure” Reilly is on the money.

“If you look at some of the projections as this market is emerging, the revenue generated will be actually fairly modest,” she said.

“But we want to do it in a way that, from the very beginning, focuses on equity and expanding whatever economic opportunities there are to our neighborhoods and not just concentrated in the downtown area.”

Countered Reilly: ”Having to go to the Fulton Market to buy your marijuana — it’s not making that an equity play in a struggling neighborhood. It’s simply making you travel further outside the central core to access it.”

Even when recreational weed becomes legal on Jan. 1, smoking in outdoor public places won’t be allowed anywhere in the state. But the law does say cities can allow public consumption in lounges or businesses.

The zoning ordinance introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting does open the door for the city to issue some consumption licenses for lounges or businesses where cannabis use would be permitted.

But Lightfoot shed no additional light on how and where those public consumption licenses would be awarded and how many there might be.

“We’re not there yet. We’re just starting with making sure that we get the boundaries” right, she said.

Lightfoot noted that many businesses are already scouting and leasing locations which is why “I was anxious to get this done.”

She added: “What we have done with this initial step is to give a framework for what the zoning’s gonna look like. Then, we’re gonna [proceed to] a lot of engagement with community members, with businesses and other stakeholders to make sure we get the boundaries right. We’ll be rolling out other parts of the regulations so we’re prepared for Jan. 1.”

The mayor was asked whether the city plans to exercise its right to levy the full 3 percent tax on the sale of recreational marijuana.

“We’ll deal with that in the future,” she said.

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