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‘Pot paradise’ on Michigan Ave.? Mayor rebuffs plan to allow weed shops in heart of downtown

“My concern about the effect on the shopping and tourists jewel of our city really hasn’t changed one wit since the fall of 2019, when we first started wrestling with this issue,” Lightfoot said Wednesday.

Jordan Davis, a wellness advisor, shows products to a 55-year-old man from River North as he makes the second purchase at Cresco Labs’ seventh Sunnyside dispensary at 436 N. Clark St. on the store’s opening day in River North, Thursday morning, May 28, 2020. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday rebuffed a newly introduced plan that would do away with the downtown “exclusion zone” she previously fought for and allow cannabis dispensaries to move into the heart of the Loop.

“We’re not turning Michigan Avenue into pot paradise,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times. “My concern about the effect on the shopping and tourists jewel of our city really hasn’t changed one wit since the fall of 2019, when we first started wrestling with this issue.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward includes large portions of the downtown area, introduced an ordinance earlier in the day that would open the entire downtown area up for legal weed sales. Reilly told the Sun-Times he was merely introducing the new measure based on the mayor’s office’s commitment to “revisit the issue” after a year of recreational cannabis sales.

Hours later, Lightfoot made it clear that her feelings about the need for a downtown “exclusion zone” have not changed. The mayor noted that, before creating the zone, she made “a lot of concessions” and “expanded the opportunities in the River North area in particular.”

Reilly was among the aldermen resistant to the mayor’s initial plan for an “exclusion zone,” though he reluctantly supported a scaled-back version that was approved in October 2019.

On Wednesday, he said there has been “no quality-of-life or crime-related issues” related to the shops that are already selling weed just outside the restricted area downtown and insisted that the cash-strapped city simply can’t turn down a potential source of new revenue — an argument he made during the initial debate over the issue.

“Given the ongoing economic recession, the city’s operating budget deficit and flagging revenue streams, the city can no longer afford to disqualify large portions of downtown from additional cannabis licenses,” said Reilly, noting cannabis revenues from last year “far exceeded city projections.”

“Trends suggest 2021 should continue to break cannabis revenue records,” he added.

Lightfoot’s pot-free zone stretches from Division Street to the north; Van Buren to the South; Lake Michigan to the east and State Street to the West. Under Reilly’s proposal, the boundaries would be completely erased.

Lightfoot previously explained that the ban was aimed at ensuring the Loop remains a “family friendly” destination and noted that legalization gave a “head start” and a “leg up” to existing pot businesses — many of which are operated by white-owned corporations.

Given that operators of Illinois’ medical pot shops were given the opportunity to start selling recreational weed at existing locations and open an additional adult-use store, she pushed to block off the area to ensure dispensaries aren’t clustered downtown and to also ensure there’s still prime opportunities for the so-called social equity applicants prioritized for the next batch of pot permits.

Lawmakers in Springfield embedded equity provisions in the legalization as a way to diversify the industry and uplift blighted communities.

But over a year into Illinois’ experiment with recreational pot, an ongoing licensing imbroglio resulted in lawsuits and has stifled the industry’s growth. So far, none of the new licenses have been issued.

And while existing operators of medical cannabis dispensaries rushed to Chicago last year to open their additional recreational stores, some have faced stiff opposition from aldermen and neighbors.

Last August, the Zoning Board of Appeals shot down PharmaCann’s plan to open a weed store just outside the Gold Coast after a neighborhood group staged a similar campaign. And last March, the zoning board went over the head of Reilly and a neighborhood group in approving MOCA Modern Cannabis’ petition to open a dispensary in River North.

Just six new pot shops have been licensed in the city in the wake of the legalization law, five of which are in or around the downtown area, according to records kept by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Due to the opposition and the city’s onerous zoning process, pot firms under the gun to open their new stores before the end of March are now looking outside the city, according to Pam Althoff, a former state senator who now heads the influential Cannabis Business Association of Illinois.

“It’s a much faster, simpler and easier process in the suburban areas, where many suburban councils are welcoming of cannabis enterprise,” Althoff said.