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Illinois Cities are NIMBY on Legal Cannabis

After a hard-fought campaign this spring in the Illinois Legislature to allow the sale of recreational marijuana, cities across the state are trying to stifle the potentially lucrative business before it launches in January.

Next year, Illinois will become the 11th state to fully legalize pot as part of a new law that also scrubbed criminal records for low-level drug offenses. But city officials and concerned residents are citing a litany of concerns — some of them supported by scant evidence — to thwart dispensaries from opening. They worry kids will have greater access to marijuana, that it’s a gateway to other drugs and that police won’t be able to tell whether drivers are too high to be on the road.

Illinois Cities are NIMBY on Legal Cannabis

City council hearings across the state have sometimes turned into raucous debates about the country’s rapidly growing legalization movement, and places like Marion, Ill., want to minimize the potential fallout of permitting anyone over the age of 21 to buy weed within their borders.

“This is not Nevada,” Marion Mayor Mike Absher said. The City Council of the downstate town, with a population of 17,000, voted to opt out, he said, because they first wanted to “see what happens to communities in our backyard.”

Marion chose to prohibit pot businesses even though no company has sought a license to operate there. The council wants to nip the idea of “weed lounges” in the bud.

The degree to which local governments bar cannabis may turn the new law into a political liability for Democratic lawmakers, freshman Gov. J.B. Pritzker and an array of state officials who publicly pressed for legalization — if the promised tax revenue and jobs don’t materialize.

Some legalization advocates have also pinned their broader national ambitions to Illinois after it turned out to be a shining success, packaging its measure with criminal justice reforms to get it across the finish line, while legislators in New York and New Jersey faltered this year.

The NIMBY fights in Illinois echo debates common even in states where there is widespread support for recreational and medical marijuana sales. In Washington state, which became a pot pioneer when it embraced full legalization in 2014, roughly 1 in 4 cities bar marijuana businesses from operating within their borders. And in Nevada, where recreational cannabis has been legal since 2017, nearly half of the state’s municipalities have prohibited sales. Even in California, the world’s largest legal cannabis market, 300 cities ban cannabis operators — out of 482 total municipalities in the state.

Still, the spirited opposition to recreational sales in Naperville, Ill., a Chicago suburb, caught the town’s mayor and City Council by surprise, especially because there’s already a medical dispensary located within its borders. More than 300 residents showed up at a Sept. 3 meeting to argue against expanding marijuana sales, and Naperville leaders decided to opt out of sales until a nonbinding referendum is held.

“I’m not stupid. I know people smoke marijuana. But we’re talking about the normalization,” said Jennifer Bruzan Taylor, a stay-at-home mom in Naperville who spoke against allowing recreational sales at three different public meetings on the issue. “People think it’s like having a beer or a cigarette because you see your parents doing it or your neighbors doing it. We already have enough normalization of vices.”

Naperville Councilwoman Theresa Sullivan said it’s not clear whether anti-cannabis protesters represented a fair cross section of the town of 170,000 residents. Supporters for recreational sales, she said, “aren’t going to come to a city council meeting — especially if they’re teachers or nurses. They’re not going to come and say, ‘Hey, I can’t wait for the cannabis store to open.’”

The wording of and date for the referendum are still up in the air.

Dispensaries in cities like Naperville that already have a medical marijuana shop are given priority to also sell recreational marijuana — and open a second location, too. With 55 dispensaries now operating, that means there could be as many as 110 shops open in Illinois by Jan. 1 statewide. Applications for 75 additional licenses — not linked to existing medical dispensaries — are due by the end of this year.

State revenue isn’t expected to take a hit from cities rejecting cannabis sales, according to Pritzker’s office and the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois. For every city that says no, there are others saying yes.

On top of a 3 percent tax that will go into the cash-strapped state’s coffers, cities can tack on up to an additional 3 percent tax on cannabis and keep the revenue. The state expects to see $57 million in revenue in fiscal year 2020, which starts July 1, with that figure approaching $400 million by 2024.

“There will be plenty of towns in Illinois that will accept cannabis sales that will see no societal impact whatsoever and will be able to benefit from the tax revenue in their communities,” said Jason Erkes, spokesperson for Cresco Labs, a company that has 22 dispensaries across the country — including five medical shops in Illinois. Cresco plans to open an additional five dispensaries in Illinois.

Erkes expects the stigma about marijuana to fade as communities see the impact — or lack thereof — on day-to-day life in their communities.

“Right now, they have this idea of stores with glass jars and raw buds and people smoking on site. They don’t have an appreciation of today’s cannabis stores. It’s a lot like going into a Sephora or Apple store,” he said.

Even Absher, the mayor of Marion, whose City Council preemptively barred cannabis sales, said he believes public perception will shift.

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