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Plan to open up marijuana sales downtown, ease cannabis zoning rules sent to full city council

New zoning rules aim to make Chicago more attractive to weed businesses. Of the 110 operational dispensaries in Illinois, 18 have opened in Chicago.

The first batch of customers make their purchases at Rise Joliet. A new ordinance aims to streamline the zoning process to attract a flood of new cannabis license winners.
A new ordinance aims to streamline the zoning process to attract a flood of new cannabis license winners.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

The Chicago City Council’s Zoning Committee on Wednesday approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to ease the city’s onerous zoning requirements for cannabis businesses and allow retail sales of the drug in much of the downtown area.

The ordinance aims to streamline the zoning process to attract a flood of new cannabis license winners, most that earned a leg up in the application process by qualifying as social equity candidates, a designation created by the state to bolster diversity in the white-dominated weed industry.

An outline of the proposal concedes that cannabis firms largely bypassed Chicago during the last licensing round, costing the city as much as $13.5 million in lost revenues. Of the 110 operational dispensaries in Illinois, just 18 have opened in the state’s biggest city.

During the state’s last “green rush” that followed the legalization of recreational weed, many of the existing pot firms that were high on Chicago took their business elsewhere. In the end, just seven stores opened here, though nearly five times that many could have.

“Dispensaries and cannabis businesses chose to go to the suburbs instead of staying in the city,” mayoral policy adviser Will Shih acknowledged.

In addition to opening up far more properties for cannabis operators to call home, the proposal would eliminate the city’s seven cannabis zones and their underlying license caps and do away with a related zoning lottery.

It would most notably open up a large portion of the downtown area to weed sales, hacking away at an “exclusion zone” Lightfoot previously fought for and defended.

“We’re not turning Michigan Avenue into pot paradise,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times in January, when downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) introduced an ordinance that would have nixed the zone altogether.

It currently stretches from Division Street to the north, Van Buren to the south and Lake Michigan to the east. The western boundary is State Street in River North and the south branch of the Chicago River in the Loop.

The new proposal would cut off sales from Division to Van Buren between State and Michigan, with the no-pot zone extending to 16th Street on Michigan. Sales would also be prohibited from Ohio to Illinois streets between Michigan and Navy Pier.

The city’s current cannabis “exclusion zone” (left) and a proposed update.

The new zoning plan, which was initially introduced in July and revised ahead of the meeting, set off a lengthy discussion among aldermen, many of whom sought ways to serve as a check on the state’s social equity efforts and to better accommodate those who rightfully fit the bill.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) tried twice to delay a vote on the ordinance after complaining that he and his colleagues were only shown the revised language 90 minutes before the zoning meeting. Lopez insisted that “members of this committee shouldn’t be guilted into action simply because people say delaying will hurt social equity applicants.”

“Those individuals have been hurt by this process from the very beginning,” he added. “When we were here two years ago at City Council at a zoning meeting for over 12 hours trying to get it right, even though we were raising objections that our friends in Springfield told us that we had no business to question, that we had no idea what we were talking about and to trust them because everything was going to be fine.

“Two years later, nothing is fine with social equity. Two years later, they still cannot get it right in Springfield. And here we are now rushing to get this done in a way that will not help those individuals most negatively impacted by oppressive marijuana enforcement laws.”

The state’s efforts to issue new cannabis licenses, namely those for pot shops, continue to be mired in controversy and uncertainty.

Nevertheless, the city is moving swiftly to make changes to accommodate the designated winners of 185 upcoming dispensary licenses, which can’t yet be issued due to a judge’s order in a pending lawsuit in Cook County. What’s more, state officials admitted Friday they made errors administering one of the three recent lotteries for pot shop permits and announced another to include firms that were wrongfully excluded.

Of the 185 licenses that remain on hold, 119 are designated in a region that includes Chicago, offering the city an opportunity to become a “pot paradise” after all.

The full council is expected to take up the proposal Tuesday.