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High irony as Thornton Township official pursues medical marijuana license

Medical marijuana has been legalized in Illinois, and the state is in the process of reviewing appliations for licenses to grow the plant. | Associated Press

Thornton Township government offers a range of social service programs — some dealing with substance abuse.

Now, the head of the township department that oversees those programs is trying to cash in on the newly legalized medical marijuana industry in Illinois.

Jerry Weems, a top aide to Frank Zuccarelli, the politically powerful township supervisor, is part of a venture that has applied for licenses from the Quinn administration to grow pot plants in Jo Daviess and Carroll counties.

Separately, the venture also is seeking a dispensary license to sell medical marijuana in Evanston, according to one of the partners in the venture, Mohammad Abughoush.

State officials have said the licenses will be awarded before Gov. Pat Quinn leaves office.

“We’re just waiting to hear what the decision will be,” says Abughoush, a Burbank accountant.

Last June, the Better Government Association reported that a nonprofit affiliated with Thornton Township had received nearly a half-million dollars under Quinn’s controversial anti-violence grant program known as the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. The grant money was earmarked for mentoring and youth employment programs, but the BGA found some of the funds benefited organizations run by Weems and a family member.

Launched by Quinn, the now-shuttered grant program came under intense scrutiny because some of the money ended up with groups and individuals with clout.

State and federal prosecutors have been trying to determine whether any grant money was improperly spent or distributed across the Chicago region in advance of the 2010 election to help Quinn with minority voters. Thornton Township spokesman Melvin Caldwell says the township has never been contacted or subpoenaed by prosecutors. Nobody has been charged with a crime, and Weems hasn’t been accused of doing anything wrong.

Weems is the township’s youth services director, paid $103,000 a year by taxpayers.

In that role he oversees counseling and crisis-intervention services for residents of the state’s largest township – which includes all or part of Calumet City, Dolton, Harvey and South Holland, among other towns. There are roughly 185,000 residents within the township boundaries.

Caldwell initially told the BGA that if Weems wins a medical marijuana license it wouldn’t a conflict with his work at the township government – implying that he would stay on the payroll. But a week after the BGA first contacted the township, Caldwell said Weems plans to step down from his government job should he win a marijuana license.

Weems and Zuccarelli didn’t return calls.

The BGA confirmed Weems was a member of the medical marijuana venture through public records and interviews with Abughoush and others.

Both Abughoush and Caldwell say the medical marijuana venture has no ties to the township or Zuccarelli, a close political ally of Quinn’s.

The Weems venture has an option to buy two development parcels at the Savanna Depot Park in Savanna, in northwestern Illinois. The commercial site is part of the former Savanna Army Depot property, which is in both Jo Daviess and Carroll counties.

If the venture wins a cultivation license in one or both of those counties, Weems and his partners plan to acquire and develop the parcels, priced at $3,500 an acre, according to interviews and records.

The state passed a pilot program for medicinal marijuana last year. In all, it can award up to 21 licenses for cultivation facilities and up to 60 licenses for storefronts where marijuana can be sold to patients with prescriptions.

The ailments for which a doctor can prescribe medical marijuana in Illinois range from glaucoma to cancer to AIDS and Parkinson’s, though that list could be expanded to include more conditions down the road.

The first marijuana will likely be dispensed this spring.

Advocates say the drug’s availability will improve the quality of life for the chronically ill, but law enforcement and others have expressed concerns about social repercussions such as crime and drug abuse.

In previous stories, the BGA has reported on other politically connected people who are trying to get in on the burgeoning medical marijuana industry. They include Kirk Dillard, a former Republican state senator and current RTA board chairman who is advising a group bidding for cultivation licenses in Will and Kankakee counties, and David Rosen, a former campaign finance director for Hillary Clinton and Quinn.

Rosen is seeking a cultivation license in Winnebago County near Rockford.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter and Patrick Rehkamp, who can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.