Zoning hurdles possible for new pot dispensaries
by BRIAN NADIG and KEVIN GROSS
A new state law which allows medical marijuana dispensaries to seek a state license to start selling recreational marijuana beginning Jan. 1, but it is unknown what type of zoning hurdles these dispensaries may have to clear before obtaining the license.
Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law House Bill 1438 on June 25 that will allow residents age 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 30 grams of marijuana from licensed dispensaries and grow five plans at home for personal use for patients approved for the current existing medical marijuana program.
In Chicago, medical marijuana dispensaries are required to obtain a special use from the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the special use is specific to the sale of medical marijuana. Special uses are sometimes required for businesses, such as liquor stores and massage parlors, which typically raise community concerns.
When discussing the legislation at the beginning of June that was approved by the General Assembly at the end of May, state Representative Kelly Cassidy (D-14), one of the chief sponsors of the bill along with state Senator Heather Steans (D-7), said that the recreational dispensary application process would be set by the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
"In the language of the bill, there’s a date that they have to make applications available for the existing ones (medical dispensaries) to get the early licenses for adult use," Cassidy said. "The existing dispensaries are going to be dual-use. I imagine moving forward, everybody will be." Medical dispensaries can apply for a recreational license within 60 days of the effective date of the law. Cassidy said that zoning would be a local government issue and that the kinks have yet to be worked out.
"I don’t know the zoning. Zoning law is not a field I’m well versed in," state Representative Robert Martwick (D-19) said at the beginning of June. "I’m interested to see how that will play out.
"Zoning decisions in Chicago are its own unique animal. What input will aldermen have? Will Lightfoot allow it (dispensary zoning decisions) to be made at the local ward level, or will it be made at the department level?"
Alderman Tom Tunney’s (44th) chief of staff Bennett Lawson said that there haven’t been any discussions on "the zoning piece yet, and certainly nothing has been introduced to City Council. It will go through the Zoning Committee just as medical cannabis did, but I don’t have any direction on it yet." Tunney is the new chairman of Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards.
When medical marijuana dispensaries first rolled out, city officials said at the time that an additional special use or even a zoning change would be required for recreational sales in the event of a new state law. Municipalities like Chicago are in the early stages of developing regulations for recreational sales.
In Norwood Park, Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st) plans to oppose any attempt by the Zen Leaf medical cannabis dispensary at 6428 N. Milwaukee Ave. to obtain a recreational license.
In 2015, the zoning board, which acts independently of the City Council, issued the special use for the Milwaukee location over the objections of Napolitano. Some residents raised concerns that the dispensary would be located across from Caldwell Woods, where there are recreational activities for children.
Napolitano’s chief of staff Chris Vittorio said that the community is not necessarily opposed to the concept of medical marijuana but has been worried that a medical dispensary on the site would primarily be a placeholder for future recreational sales. A Zen Leaf representative could not be reached for comment.
At the time some residents argued that the Zen Leaf dispensary (formerly Union Group) was not needed given that a previously approved medical dispensary would be located about 2.5 miles to the south. "It’s a ten-minute ride," one resident said.
The nearby dispensary, which is operated by Columbia Care Illinois, is located at 4758 N. Milwaukee Ave. A Columbia Care representative was unavailable for comment, but its chief executive officer said in 2016 that he has no desire to sell marijuana for recreational purposes.
Cassidy said that new dispensaries could be looking at a year to 2 1 /2 years before they can begin to operate and sell recreational marijuana.
"What we found in the medical program is that it took anywhere from a year to 2 1/2 years to get from application to the doors opening. The reality is, there’s not a way to expedite that, because you’re dealing not just with the applications at the state level, but also local zoning regulations. … Getting through the local process tends to be the thing that slows us down the most," she said.