clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Effort to delay recreational pot sales fails after aldermen and mayor say gov intervenes

While black Chicago aldermen say they were told the governor’s office said it would earmark two of the new medical marijuana licenses to social equity applicants, the governor’s office is publicly denying that.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday survived a crucial test of her City Council muscle that uncomfortably pitted her against members of the Black Caucus.

The issue was whether to delay recreational marijuana sales in Chicago for six months to give African American and Hispanic entrepreneurs a chance to get a piece of the action after being shut out of the first group of owners.

The vote to block the six-month delay was 29 to 19. That means the sale of recreational weed can proceed as scheduled on Jan. 1. The vote followed a dizzying array of mayoral rulings, aldermanic appeals and procedural votes. The closest of those votes was 26 to 22.

Some black aldermen said Wednesday they were persuaded by last-minute intervention by the governor’s office with specific assurances that some new medical marijuana licenses would go to social equity applicants. But in a twist late Wednesday night, the governor’s office publicly disavowed any such guarantees.

The tension during the Council meeting was reminiscent of Council Wars, when 29 mostly white aldermen led by Edward R. Vrdolyak (10th) and Edward Burke (14th) blocked then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.

It all started when Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) moved to put off a vote on the six-month delay. With that, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) moved to adjourn the meeting.

Aldermen voted 32-16 not to adjourn. When it became clear that Lightfoot had the votes to kill the six-month delay, Villegas withdrew his earlier motion and pushed for a final vote.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) speaks during a contentious Chicago City Council meeting, where aldermen were scheduled to vote on attempt by the Black Caucus to delay sales of recreational marijuana in Chicago for six months to give African American and Hispanic people a chance to get a piece of the action, at City Hall, Wednesday.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) speaks during a contentious Chicago City Council meeting, where aldermen were scheduled to vote on attempt by the Black Caucus to delay sales of recreational marijuana in Chicago for six months to give African American and Hispanic people a chance to get a piece of the action, at City Hall, Wednesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Just 24 hours earlier, the six-month delay had squeaked through a City Council committee by a vote of 10 to 9. Villegas predicted then that the Black Caucus had the votes in the full Council, potentially costing cash-strapped Chicago $5 million and the state a whole lot more.

What changed overnight?

A lot of arm-twisting by the mayor’s office and — aldermen and the mayor say — an assurance from Gov. J.B. Pritzker to earmark two of five new medical marijuana dispensary licenses — to be located in Hyde Park and Chinatown — to so-called social equity applicants.

The new medical-only licenses were approved earlier this year as a part of a state law making the medical-marijuana program permanent.

“That is a win,” said Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), especially since he said he received assurances that once the shops are up and running owners will be able to get a recreational license and be able to open a second location — something the state has allowed for the medical dispensaries already in business.

“You’d have essentially four licenses that are African American,” said Scott.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) holds his head during a contentious Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019.
Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) holds his head during a contentious Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall on Wednesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The two social equity licenses were also enough to convince Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) to vote with Lightfoot and against the six-month delay.

“We’ve got to understand when we have some wins, man. ... Are we responsible if we just fight and lose? Or are we more responsible if we fight, we negotiate, we compromise and we win for our community?” Burnett said.

But later Wednesday, the governor’s office said there’s been no determination about who will receive the new licenses to sell marijuana.

“Perhaps the aldermen came to understand that there was a law already on the books that encourages social equity applicants to apply for medical licenses,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh told the Sun-Times.

“There will be a regulated process to determine the ultimate owners from the pool of all applicants, including social equity applicants,” she said.

“The state is working to finalize social equity standards for the remaining medical licenses and has to work through the rule-making process to get that done,” Abudayyeh said.

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) yells  Wednesday during the monthly Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall. Aldermen were scheduled to vote on attempt by the Black Caucus to delay sales of recreational marijuana in Chicago for six months to give African American and Hispanic people a chance to get a piece of the action.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) yells Wednesday during the monthly Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall. Aldermen were scheduled to vote on attempt by the Black Caucus to delay sales of recreational marijuana in Chicago for six months to give African American and Hispanic people a chance to get a piece of the action.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Burnett was joined by five other members of the 20-member Black Caucus in voting against the delay: Pat Dowell (3rd); Michelle Harris (8th); Chris Taliaferro (29th); Emma Mitts (37th) and Matt Martin (47th).

When a heckler in the gallery denounced Burnett as a “sell-out,” the alderman blew his cool.

“All of these punks in the crowd on Facebook and all that stuff who talk all that smack … Who cares what they say? Bump them. Bump them,” Burnett said in remarks mistaken by some members of the media as profanity.

But other members stood their ground.

“If we don’t stand up for our community as African American aldermen, then what the hell do they need us for?” said Ald. Howard Brookins (21st). “We’re not rubber stamps for this mayor or anybody else.”

Normally, mayoral allies know exactly how many votes they can count on.

That was not the case Wednesday. There was genuine suspense. African American aldermen left the Council floor to huddle in a backroom. Mayoral allies conferred with Lightfoot on the rostrum.

When it was over, Lightfoot denied there would be any residual impact on her relationship with the Black Caucus.

Saying that “the governor and his team made specific concrete concessions,” Lightfoot said, “In the words of one alderman, sometimes you just have to take a win. That’s what today was about.”