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Divided City Council relaxes zoning requirements for marijuana sales

Six days after two of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s most outspoken City Council critics used a parliamentary maneuver to delay the vote, alderman approved her plan to help minorities who have been shut out of the so-called “green rush.”

Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.
Aldermen convened for a special meeting Monday at Chicago City Hall.
Sun-Times file

The second time was the charm for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to shrink the downtown “exclusion zone” to a sliver and relax zoning requirements for cannabis businesses all over Chicago.

On the same day that Lightfoot delivered her 2022 budget address, a divided City Council reluctantly approved Lightfoot’s plan to help minorities who have so far been shut out of the so-called “green rush.”

The vote was 33 to 13.

The vote to streamline the zoning process to attract an avalanche of “social equity” applicants — a designation created by the state to try to diversify the lily-white weed industry — was to take place last week.

But aldermen Anthony Beale (9th) and Ray Lopez (15th), Lightfoot’s two most outspoken Council critics, used a parliamentary maneuver to postpone the vote until the next City Council meeting.

Lightfoot promptly declared she would call for that vote on Monday.

And on Monday, Lopez and Beale remained opposed.

“Half the people who are going to benefit from this rush job are fronts for individuals who are not true social equity individuals,” Lopez said before Monday’s vote.

“This is wrong. We can slow down. We can do this right.”

Beale tried to shame his colleagues on the Black Caucus into taking a stand.

“When are we gonna stop going along to get along? ... The people of our community have been hurt. Half of these people are fronts. The other half are gonna sell their licenses. When are we gonna stand up for our community?” Beale said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, countered that the mayor’s measure needs to be on the fast track, even if Beale is right in his assumption about the number of white-owned “fronts.”

“If 40% potentially are fronts, that means that 60% of them are actually legitimate. … Do we want to hold back legitimate social equity businesses from participating?” Ervin said.

“All of this delay right now is doing is giving the current players in the market a field day as it relates to having recreational cannabis sales in the city of Chicago.”

Ervin said the time for the City Council to take a stand was in December 2019.

That’s when he convinced the Committee on Contract Oversight and Equity to delay recreational marijuana sales for six months to give African American and Hispanic entrepreneurs shut out of Round One a piece of the pie.

The following day, Lightfoot killed the six-month delay by a vote of 29-to-19 in a tense test of her Council muscle that uncomfortably pitted her against members of the Black Caucus.

“I led the charge to not let the train leave the station. ... We had an opportunity to delay sales totally and the City Council balked on that,” Ervin told the Sun-Times.

“Now, we’ve got some things that are fixed. They’ve had three rounds of lotteries. We’re seeing some local businesses, owners and residents have an opportunity to participate. I don’t think it’s necessary to hold everybody up.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th), chairman of the Progressive Caucus, delivered a similar, “I told you so” message in urging a brief delay.

“We had the chance to do this right years ago. We didn’t heed that message. That’s why we’re here today with the same type of rhetoric,” King said.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said he asked the Law Department to explore the possibility of creating “social equity applicants in perpetuity.” That would have meant that, even if the license is sold, the new owner needs to “keep a social equity component.” He was told it “couldn’t be done at the local level.”

“I would encourage Springfield to think about that so everyone doesn’t sell out...We need to build some wealth in our community,” Burnett said Monday.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) acknowledged that there are “inherent flaws” in state law. But, he argued that the “remedy is not here.” It’s in Springfield.

Reilly argued that social equity applicants are “eager to open up stores in downtown Chicago” and that they’ve been “waiting and waiting and waiting” for that opportunity.

“There is a group of people out there who cannot wait any longer. It’s the social equity applicants. I have heard from them myself. Every month that goes by costs these folks a lot of money. ... The way to fix this is not by holding up social equity applicants,” Reilly said.

Prior to the final vote, Lightfoot told aldermen that the definition of social equity is not the only thing that needs to be changed in Springfield. So does the city’s cut of marijuana revenues. Chicago and other municipalities are getting “pennies on the dollar” from the multi-billion dollar marijuana industry, she said.

“If we wait, there are people who will benefit. And it’s none of the people who look like me,” said Lightfoot, Chicago’s first black female and first openly gay mayor.

“If we make doing business in the city so onerous, they’re gonna move across the border to the suburbs.”

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

It most notably opens up a large portion of the downtown area to weed sales, hacking away at an “exclusion zone” Lightfoot previously fought for and defended by saying, “We’re not turning Michigan Avenue into pot paradise.”

Boundaries of the downtown exclusion zone had been Division Street to the north, Van Buren to the south and Lake Michigan to the east. The western boundary was State Street in River North and the south branch of the Chicago River in the Loop.

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