Divided City Council OKs expansion of Jefferson Park marijuana dispensary

Ald. Jason Ervin argued the unwritten rule allowing aldermen to call the shots on zoning in their wards is a one-way street: “It seems like … when it come down to Black folks, aldermanic prerogative gets tossed out the window.”

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Columbia Care, 4758 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Columbia Care, 4758 N. Milwaukee Ave., was given permission to expand its Jefferson Park location, but not before a spirited debate in the City Council over equity in the recreational marijuana industry.

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A divided City Council agreed Wednesday to let a medical marijuana company expand its Jefferson Park dispensary over the strenuous objections from African-American aldermen who wanted to hold it up to press their case for cannabis equity.

Prior to the 31-to-19 vote, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, argued the unwritten rule allowing aldermen to call the shots on zoning matters in their own wards is a one-way street.

“It seems like … when it come down to Black folks, aldermanic prerogative gets tossed out the window,” Ervin said.

“When the alderman of the 2nd Ward wanted to put an honorary street sign up for a slain civil rights leader [Fred Hampton] in their ward, [the response was], `Oh, we can’t do that. Why? Because it goes beyond aldermanic prerogative. When Ald. Mitts in the 37th Ward tried to bring [Wal-Mart] jobs to her community, we had to fight for almost a year.”

Ervin noted that the Il. House passed a bill this week to finally bring some equity to the lily-white cannabis industry by creating 110 new dispensary licenses authorizing the sale of recreational marijuana.

It included an amendment allowing social equity applicants to open a new dispensary within 1,500 feet of an existing one.

The alderman urged his colleagues not to give Columbia Care finally zoning approval to expand its dispensary in the 4700-block of North Milwaukee until the bill is approved by the Il. Senate and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“We’ve got to solve this right now? Why? So other folks can get rich continuously without a hope or a prayer for that to happen?” Ervin said.

Ervin said he would like nothing more than to support local Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th), who supports the expansion — but not “at the expense” of fairness.

“This vote today is a matter of greed. Period. Paragraph. … This is a slap in the face to a lot of people,” Ervin said.

“If the alderman of the 45th Ward wants to continue to move forward in this manner, I think it’s wrong. … The nail holes that we create with these actions ... we can pull the nails out, but yet and still, those holes will be there.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th) said the landmark legislation legalizing recreational marijuana in Illinois “somewhat addressed social equity in the state, but still enslaved us really in terms of economic equity.”

Not a single marijuana business in Illinois is majority-owned by Blacks, Hispanics or women.

“The irony of it all [is that] all of the Black [and] Brown people have been locked up. Got a get-out-of-jail free card, but don’t collect any money. Don’t pass ‘Go.’ Don’t collect $200 because that’s only relegated to white people in the community. That’s just wrong,” King said.

Gardiner agreed “more equity in this industry” is needed, but argued the dispensary, which is in his ward, already is open. Columbia Care simply wants to expand, and the Zoning Committee approved the expansion in February.

“A business that’s gonna bring some life to a depressed corridor in Jefferson Park. A business that’s gonna bring nearly $200,000 in tax revenue to this city [per month]. That’s nearly $2.4 million annually,” Gardiner said.

Gardiner reminded his colleagues they just raised property taxes by $94 million — followed by an annual increase tied to the consumer price index — and likely would be asked to approve yet another property tax hike next fall.

“We have a business that’s willing to pay those taxes — happily — instead of waiting and relying on residents’ backs to say, ‘Hey, it’s up to you now to make up for the years of reckless spending the city has made,’” he said.

“So I ask you today, can you please vote in favor of an existing business that wants to expand in my ward? It’s good for not only my ward — it’s good for the entire city.”

Fourteen Black aldermen voted against the expansion. Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) was among six Black members of the Council voting for it.

Beale argued the time to take a stand for equity in the cannabis industry was two years ago, when the City Council held the cards and could have blocked recreational marijuana sales in Chicago.

Instead, the Black Caucus went along with it and lost political leverage, Beale said.

“Now ain’t the time to take a stand. The time to take a stand 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. Not give all those licensees a two-year running start on the market,” Beale said.

“We cannot go back in time and try to clean up our mistake then at the expense of an expansion. ... The horses are already out of the barn.”

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