Recreational marijuana in Chicago is coming soon, but aldermen want more minority participation

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker appears at Cabrini Green Legal Aid in Chicago's Loop on Dec. 4 after signing a measure that clarifies some of the provisions in the landmark law legislators passed in the spring.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker appears at Cabrini Green Legal Aid in Chicago’s Loop on Dec. 4 after signing a measure that clarifies some of the provisions in the landmark law legislators passed in the spring. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Recreational marijuana in Chicago use is weeks away from getting opened. Black aldermen on Wednesday again complained white dispensary operators will get too big a head start on the lucrative business. Also, he argued broad legalization should be stalled until midyear.

The City Council hearing on Black Caucus Chairman Ald. Jason Ervin’s ordinance to push back the start date on recreational marijuana in chicago sales until July 1, 2020, did not include a vote on his proposal. That clears the way for the state law to take effect on Jan. 1.

Opponents of the upcoming rollout which allows 11 existing Chicago medical marijuana dispensaries that are run by overwhelmingly white ownership groups to open their doors immediately to recreational users in January. While other applicants spend months getting city permits did get another opportunity Wednesday to vent about the inequity they say is built in to the plan.

“We would never, as a body, allow anything to pass through this with this magnitude of economic impact. And not have (minority) participation,” Ervin said. “Every bond deal that goes through here, we’re hawks on, if there’s African American, Latino participation. Every other type of financial transaction that comes through this body, we have these same questions. However, this same question needs to be asked about cannabis, adult-use cannabis here in the city of Chicago.”

Aldermen also have hammered the social equity components of the state marijuana sales law for allowing businesses that simply employ people who live in areas affected by the war on drugs to receive additional points on their applications for recreational dispensaries. Extra points should only go to groups with minorities among their owners, they say.

“I’m telling them right now, don’t even talk to me unless you have African American partners”. Said Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th, whose ward stretches from the Near North Side to the West Side. “Don’t waste your time coming to see me. Because I don’t even want to talk to them. Because I think you’re just being racist in my face when you talk to me about this stuff. And you don’t allow African Americans to be your partner. It’s ridiculous, man.”

In a compromise last month after black aldermen threatened to stall Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s zoning rules for the dispensaries. The City Council agreed to require dispensaries opening in many types of buildings to seek a zoning change. And also a special use permit, meaning they would need to appear before the council for approval. That could give aldermen considerable say over whether the new businesses get approved.

Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, who chaired Wednesday’s meeting of the Committee on Contract Equity and Oversight. Also, he’s the council’s longest serving black member, urged her colleagues to make changes to the recreational sales rules after they start in January. Rather than trying to hold up the program.

“Anything that we do here has an amendment clause. Any document is a living document,” Austin said. “No matter what it is we put forth, there’s always a way to say ‘Stop right here.’ But to stop in the beginning, I think it would be unfair to those who would want to have input throughout the whole entire process”.

But Ald. Sophia King, 4th, warned against letting the marijuana sales start without getting the rules aldermen want in place beforehand. “We should not start something and hope to fix it. We’ve gone down that road before, and I don’t think there’s any example you can give where we’ve started off on the wrong foot and ended up on the right.”

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