Could downtown become a ‘pot paradise’ after all?

An ordinance filed Monday would allow new cannabis dispensaries to move into the downtown “exclusion zone” Mayor Lightfoot fought for and has continued to defend.

SHARE Could downtown become a ‘pot paradise’ after all?

An ordinance introduced Monday would give so-called social equity applicants the ability to set up pot shop in the restricted area that includes some of Chicago’s most sought after real estate.

AP file

An ordinance filed Monday could allow a flood of new cannabis dispensaries to move into a downtown “exclusion zone” where Mayor Lori Lightfoot has blocked pot sales.

In addition to giving so-called social equity applicants the ability to set up shop in the restricted area that includes some of Chicago’s most sought after real estate, the proposal sponsored by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) would allow those groups to bypass some of the onerous zoning requirements for cannabis businesses.

Villegas told the Sun-Times that his plan would help “level the playing field” for the social equity applicants, a designation created to diversify the state’s lily white weed industry.

Those social equity applicants await Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature on a recently passed bill that will unleash a flood of new licenses allowing some of those applicants to open 120 new dispensaries. Another 75 licenses created earlier are in limbo until the state holds a lottery to determine the winners.

Villegas’ proposal has already drawn the ire of some social equity applicants and it could set the stage for a battle with Lightfoot, who rebuffed another plan earlier this year to allow pot sales downtown. “We’re not turning Michigan Avenue into pot paradise,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times in January.

Villegas, who previously served as Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader, argued that some cannabis businesses wouldn’t be out of place in the Loop.

“Some of the stores that are currently in place look like Apple stores,” he said. “Everything’s open for discussion. If the mayor doesn’t want to have Michigan Avenue, there are other locations that are near Michigan Avenue.”

Lightfoot’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The initial proposal has already come under heavy fire from members of the influential Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition, which is pushing the city to first address other zoning issues and to offer waivers allowing “true social equity applicants” to open downtown.

Former state Sen. Rickey Hendon, a dispensary applicant and coalition spokesman, claimed Villegas’ plan offers an undue edge to firms like Green Renaissance Illinois, or GRI Holdings, a clouted applicant group that he doesn’t believe should have qualified for social equity status.

“They gamed the system, so we don’t accept them even to this moment as a social equity applicant,” Hendon said of the company.

GRI Holdings has been lobbying for the changes in Villegas’ proposal and others on the state level. Partner Thomas Wheeler, a former high-ranking Chicago cop, said he’s been working with advocates and policymakers for months “to ensure that we have the opportunity to succeed and compete in an industry that is currently dominated by corporate multi-state operators.”

Under Villegas’ proposal, social equity players notably wouldn’t be bound to a specific area or hindered by the dispensary caps placed on the city’s cannabis regions. The businesses would simply have to hold a community meeting and receive a special-use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. The plan would also allow social equity shops to open within 1,500 feet of existing dispensaries, a provision that mirrors a rule change included in the trailer bill.

Villegas said the changes could help maximize the city’s returns from the booming cannabis industry, which he noted is “ripe for generating revenue.” Chicago currently boasts just 19 of the state’s 110 licensed weed stores.

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