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Michigan Avenue Will Not Become ‘Pot Paradise,’ Lightfoot Says In Ruling Out New Downtown Weed Shops

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly wants to open the Loop and the Magnificent Mile up to cannabis dispensaries.

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CHICAGO — Chicago residents and tourists would be able to buy legal pot without leaving the central business district if a new measure from a Downtown aldermen is approved, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot says it would turn Michigan Avenue into a “pot paradise.”

Recreational weed sales have been legal in Illinois for over a year and new dispensaries have popped up across the city — but not in the Loop and along the famed Magnificent Mile.

In 2019, Chicago’s City Council passed a cannabis zoning ordinance, championed by Lightfoot, creating seven cannabis districts in the city. The ordinance carved out a Downtown exclusion zone prohibiting pot shops from opening in the Loop and a portion of the Near North side. 

At the time, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) supported the plan but said he wanted to revisit the exclusion zone in a year. At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Reilly introduced a measure to scrap the exclusion zone, allowing dispensaries to locate near the city’s largest employment district and tourist hot spots.

Reilly told Block Club that Lightfoot agreed to reevaluate the issue after a year, so he introduced the ordinance to “‘revisit’ the issue, as was promised.”

“As I predicted, we have had no quality-of-life or crime-related issues with the dispensaries currently operating Downtown. The state just reported 2020 cannabis revenues that far exceeded city projections. Trends suggest 2021 should continue to break cannabis revenue records,” he said.

Credit: Ted Cox/ DNAinfo
Ald. Brendan Reilly.

Given the ongoing economic recession, the city’s operating budget deficit and flagging revenue streams: the city can no longer afford to “disqualify” large portions of Downtown from additional cannabis licenses.”

The ordinance strips the language creating the exclusion zone, and establishes a new, larger central cannabis zone from Division Street to the Stevenson Expressway and from Lake Michigan to Interstate 90/94 to the west. 

Shortly after Reilly introduced the measure, Lightfoot said her opinion on the exclusion zone hadn’t changed.

“We’re not turning Michigan Avenue into the pot paradise,” she said at a news conference following the meeting. “My concern about the effect on the shopping and tourist jewel of our city really hasn’t changed one wit since the fall of 2019 when we first started wrestling with this issue.”

Because an effort to distribute 75 new state dispensary licenses has been tied up by multiple, ongoing lawsuits, Lightfoot said “the reality is I don’t think very much is going to be happening one way or the other” on the zoning issue.

After the state announced just 21 cannabis firms would participate in a lottery to award the licenses — a far cry from the promised increase in minority ownership the licenses would create — entrepreneurs who lost out filed lawsuits.

Gov. JB Pritzker announced those who missed out would have the opportunity to have their applications rescored after several lawsuits showed discrepancies in the way the applications were rated.

The current central zone, which includes much of River North, has seen dispensaries battling to open in prime spots closest to the exclusion zone’s boundaries. 

Currently, two pot shops are open in the central district, Cresco Labs’ Sunnyside Dispensary at 436 N. Clark St. and MOCA Modern Cannabis at 214 W. Ohio St.

In a sign of the Downtown location’s value to cannabis companies, MOCA, along with its original location in Logan Square, was sold this year to New York based Ascend Wellness Holdings.

PharmaCann won a city zoning permit to open a third downtown location at 60 W. Superior St.. Dispensaries have also abandoned plans for locations throughout River North and in the South Loop following community pushback.

PharmaCann, who won two spots in the central district during the 2019 zoning lottery, had their bid to open a dispensary in the Gold Coast rejected in the middle of the night after a marathon Zoning Board of Appeals meeting where neighbors and property owners said the pot shop would tarnish the affluent neighborhood.

In March, after the Zoning Board of Appeals granted a permit to MOCA over the objection of Reilly, the alderman ripped the decision, saying the board was a “joke.”

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