A City Council proposal that would give local alderpersons more sway over where cannabis businesses can open was met with resistance Wednesday from industry insiders, who complained it doesn’t give companies more options to set up shop.

Under the ordinance introduced by downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), pot companies would no longer have to earn special-use approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals, a process widely slammed as costly and time-consuming.

Instead, marijuana firms would need a green light from the local alderperson as well as the Zoning Committee, which typically defers to the unwritten rules giving Council members authority over zoning matters in their wards.

Edie Moore, co-founder of the pot advocacy group Chicago NORML, said the proposal is a “nonstarter” unless it’s amended to allow cannabis firms to open in the B-3 zoning districts they’ve been barred from. Cutting out those buildings has made it harder for businesses to serve the very communities marijuana legalization was intended to benefit.

“Eliminating the B-3 properties eliminates thousands of available properties on the South and West sides in particular,” said Moore, who recently earned zoning approval to open a dispensary in Boystown.

While Moore insisted that process should be faster and cheaper, she believes the zoning board is still best equipped to hear cannabis zoning appeals.

“They’ve been evaluating special-use and properties for planning and for use this whole time,” she said. “I don’t think other aldermen have that in their wheelhouse.”

Hopkins said he merely aimed to give alderpersons more control of their wards. “We’re the ones who are most responsive, and we’re held accountable,” he said.

“Any of my colleagues can tell you if a dispensary opens in their ward over their objection, the voters still blame the alderman. They say, ‘Why did you let that happen?’ We say, ‘We tried to stop it.’ But they don’t accept that explanation. We have the accountability without the authority, currently. And that’s an untenable situation.”

Hopkins said the new proposal arose from his push to get a handle on mind-altering hemp products like Delta-8 that aren’t sold in licensed dispensaries. He introduced another ordinance Wednesday that would force businesses selling those products to get special-use approval, adding to his proposed crackdown.

He agreed the Zoning Board of Appeal’s process takes too long and is too costly, noting that its “bureaucratic hurdles” require dispensaries to hire zoning attorneys and keep them on retainer for months.

He also acknowledged the change he seeks for dispensaries could mean entire wards have no dispensaries. But, he asked, “How is that different than any other zoning question?”

“The aldermen is ultimately the last stop in that process and the one that should be held accountable for the decision being made when it affects the neighborhood like that,” he said. “It shouldn’t be the ZBA. The average resident can’t tell you a single member of the ZBA. They don’t even know what the ZBA is.”

Fellow downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd supports the attempt to “shift approval of cannabis licenses from the unelected, unaccountable Zoning Board of Appeals” to the Zoning Committee.

“Over the past few years, the Zoning Board of Appeals has approved cannabis licenses across the city, despite strong opposition from the local alderman, community groups and local residents,” Reilly said in an email. “And when the ZBA makes those bad decisions, they cannot be held accountable because they are appointees who serve at the pleasure of the Mayor.”

In 2020, the zoning board approved a recreational marijuana dispensary in River North over strenuous objections from Reilly and his constituents, who raised concerns about traffic, security and a daring $200,000 burglary of a pot shop just days after recreational pot became legal. 

He argued on Wednesday that many Chicago neighborhoods, including those in his ward, are “not interested in dispensaries.”

“I believe the people deserve a seat at the table and a strong voice in this process,” Reilly added.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), one of the City Council’s leading advocates for cannabis dispensaries, said he has concerns about making any change that would stunt the growth of cannabis revenue and hold marijuana businesses to a higher regulatory standard than places that sell alcohol.

“Alders could decide that they don’t want any cannabis in their ward and find ways to stop it in a way that limits industry and the taxes we would get from that revenue,” said Vasquez.

 Weed firms would have to be OK’d by the local alderperson and the Zoning Committee, which typically defers to City Council members’ authority over zoning matters in their wards.  Read More