Wanna allow weed cafes in your town? Hold on — lawmakers are planning a rewrite of pot law

The law legalizing recreational pot contained an exemption seemingly allowing marijuana smoking in bars and restaurants, alarming health advocates.

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Customers can toke up in smoking lounges in San Francisco.

Jeff Chiu/AP

Facing scrutiny from health advocates, sponsors of the legislation that will lift the state’s prohibition on pot will likely need to rework a portion of the law that permits businesses to allow on-site cannabis use with local approval.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, told the Chicago Sun-Time this week that special interest groups expressed concerns about a provision in the law that offers an exemption to the Smoke Free Illinois Act to allow smoking at public consumption spaces, or cannabis smoke lounges.

“The intent was to allow locals to have the latitude to determine how they wanted it to look in their community — and that remains the intent. We just have to find the right way to accomplish it,” Cassidy said. “When you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before, it sometimes takes a couple tries to get it right.”

That means that the locations where pot could be consumed in public could be severely limited — potentially dashing the hopes of those who hoped use would be allowed in existing restaurants or bars, for example.

The revelation that fundamental changes are being considered to the provision came as Mayor Lori Lightfoot proposed a zoning framework Wednesday for where Chicago’s pot businesses, including consumption lounges, could be located. Her floor leader, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), introduced another ordinance that offered specific details that would seemingly allow a broad range of business licenses where public consumption would be allowed, but he later said the measure was filed by mistake.

The statewide legalization measure, signed in June by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, states that cannabis establishments and other undefined business entities that gain local approval “shall not be deemed a public place within the meaning of the Smoke Free Illinois Act.” That means, presumably, that the cannabis cafes could allow customers to light up.

Matt Maloney, director of health policy for the Respiratory Health Association, claims that language conflicts with another portion of the pot law that reinforces the anti-smoking legislation and bars individuals from lighting up weed where smoking has previously been prohibited. Kathy Drea, staff lobbyist for the American Lung Association, said the pot law’s conflicting language makes the provision allowing pot cafes “inoperable.” 

Maloney, Drea and representatives from the American Heart Association have recently met with Cassidy and state Sen. Heather Steans, another Chicago Democrat who led the legalization push, to discuss reworking the law.

Trailer legislation is expected to be introduced during next month’s legislative veto session to clarify the intent of the provision, Cassidy said. She envisions that public consumption spaces will ultimately function like cigar shops or hookah lounges — establishments that have already received exemptions to the Smoke Free Illinois Act.

“Whether that ends up being something that exists fully in the purview of an existing dispensary, or if that can end up being something freestanding, I think remains to be seen,” she added.

Asked whether the upcoming legislation could allow businesses to allow non-smoking consumption — like edibles, infused drinks and vaping — she said “nothing has been decided.” Cassidy noted that she and her colleagues “have to determine what is doable within the bounds” of current state law. 

Some have interpreted the current provision in the pot law as allowing municipalities to permit pot use at bars and other establishments that aren’t licensed to sell the drug. But Cassidy doubts that would ever come to fruition.

No smoking at Applebee’s

“I’ve gotten emails screaming at me because they don’t want people sparking up in Applebee’s. That’s not gonna happen,” Cassidy said, noting that the existing anti-smoking law “is really, really strict.” 

“There’s not a desire to make that possible,” she said. “We don’t want people exposed to cannabis smoke that aren’t choosing to be.”

Cassidy said she’s been advising local government officials to “take things as they come,” noting that Lightfoot has heeded the call by introducing an ordinance that specifically deals with zoning issues for pot shops.

Mayoral spokeswoman Anel Ruiz later noted that city officials are “in the very beginning stages of developing regulations for on-site consumption.”

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