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Aldermen bemoan lack of control over medical marijuana dispensaries

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Updated: February 25, 2014 6:28AM



Chicago aldermen on Thursday bemoaned a state law that legalized medical marijuana but left them virtually powerless to decide where dispensaries and growing centers are located.

Concerned that Illinois’ 60 dispensaries would be concentrated “where the customers are,” Ald. Edward Burke (14th) wants to confine them and growing centers to manufacturing districts and require them to obtain special-use permits.

That would trigger a public hearing before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals where area residents could object, identify the owners and scrutinize their backgrounds.

On Thursday, the Zoning Committee took testimony, but no action, on the ordinance Burke championed with support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“There’s been enough evidence from around the country about the abuses that have taken place when this form of law was enacted,” said Burke, pointing to a “60 Minutes” segment that claimed Denver has “more locations dispensing medical marijuana than McDonald’s or Starbucks” stores.

“Most [people] don’t want to have their neighborhood crowded with increased traffic, with the kind of examples…that have taken place in California and Denver. The city is where the rubber meets the road. That’s where there has to be input and control.”

Burke’s proposal to confine dispensaries and growing centers to manufacturing districts did not sit well with Ali Nagib, assistant director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

He noted that many of the patients who suffer from the 42 named ailments or diseases that qualify them to purchase medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescription are seriously ill or dying.

City attorneys say the state law already appears to “push” the medical marijuana industry into manufacturing districts by requiring cultivation centers to be located at least 2,500 feet away from schools, day care centers and areas zoned residential.

The buffer for dispensaries is 1,000 feet from schools and day care centers. They cannot be located in homes in areas zoned residential but they can set up shop just outside residential zones.

“Patients are not going to want to travel to some manufacturing district surrounded by trucks and scary looking buildings,” Nagib said.

Ald. Rey Colon (35th) agreed that manufacturing districts are inappropriate — but for a different reason.

“The manufacturing district I have in my ward — there’s not a lot of cars. It’s mostly big trucks delivering and receiving. It complicates that process by sending a bunch of vehicles into those districts,” Colon said.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) worried aloud whether seriously ill patients would be required to “drive to the edge of the city” when many of Chicago’s major medical campuses, including fast-growing Northwestern Memorial, are located downtown or just south and west of the Central Business District.

Zoning Administrator Patty Scudiero replied, “There are manufacturing districts just outside of your ward that would fit the criteria set forth in the state code today.”

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) said he’s not interested in “gouging” medical marijuana users but the city should consider levying a “small tax” on the transaction.

Rose Kelly, senior counsel for the Law Department, said the state law already includes a tax and, “We are looking to see if there’s any kind of additional city taxes we can impose.” She did not elaborate.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) noted that people “come from all over the state to buy marijuana on the West Side” of Chicago, including college students, nurses, doctors and people in limousines.

“This can possibly enhance the underground market by having these dispensaries in secluded areas,” Burnett said.

“If you put things in the market where it is, you knock those folks out of business. If we put it far away, it’s like having a casino out on boats, but people are still doing booking in the city. We could be helping in one area and enhancing things in another area.”

Email: fspielman@suntimes.com

Twitter:@fspielman



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