Legal recreational cannabis sales begin on New Year’s Day in Illinois for everyone 21 and over. Just in time to help work off that likely hangover. But if you try to find a recreational dispensary in downtown Chicago, you might be out of luck. On Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled a set of zoning rules laying out where dispensaries will be allowed to open their doors. And those zoning rules include an area, right in the heart of downtown Chicago, where no dispensaries will be able to set up shop.
Proponents of the zoning proposal say it ensures equal geographic distribution of retail cannabis shops, so no one area becomes too concentrated or reaps all the benefits of legalization. Those opposed to the plan to block dispensaries from downtown Chicago say the zoning restrictions will cost the city needed revenue.
Dispensary “Exclusion Zone” Includes Popular Tourist Destinations and Consumer Areas
The city of Chicago is preparing for legal retail to begin on January 1, 2020. And part of those preparations includes setting up regulatory measures to “establish the safe and responsible implementation of legalized cannabis next year,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. And the first step in the process has been determining how many dispensaries to approve and where to locate them.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s cannabis dispensary zoning plan would divvy Chicago up into seven zones, and each zone would get seven dispensaries. In May, the dispensary limit will double, allowing each zone to have 14 dispensaries. City officials are working to distribute each zone’s dispensaries evenly with distancing requirements. They’re also keeping them away from schools and residential districts.
But Lightfoot’s plan also includes an “exclusion zone” where retail cannabis shops would not be permitted. The no-dispensary area is right in the middle of the downtown’s central business district, and includes much of the Loop and the Magnificent Mile. The densely commercial area is a top destination for tourists and visitors, a fact that has made the area attractive real estate for cannabis companies.
But Mayor Lightfoot and city officials behind the zoning proposal say that the high-traffic central corridor isn’t the best spot for selling legal weed. “This is about inclusive, equitable growth of a new industry,” said Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development. “From a public safety standpoint as the industry develops, it was best to exclude that from operations.”
Blocking Dispensaries Could Cut Chicago Out of Cannabis Revenue
But Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly, along many in the cannabis industry, worry that the exclusion zone will cause the city to lose out on an important revenue opportunity. “In order for this to be a successful revenue play for the city, we have to have some dispensaries located downtown,” Reilly told the Chicago Tribune.
Mayor Lightfoot’s zoning proposal has already garnered praise from groups advocating for inclusiveness and equity in Illinois’ emerging legal cannabis industry. Even cannabis business owners and industry spokespersons recognize the need to support economic and neighborhood development, especially given how extensively the war on drugs has ravaged Chicago communities.
Still, companies that had eyed downtown Chicago’s critical mass of consumers would like to see some tweaking to the plan to allow dispensaries closer to the downtown core. Lightfoot’s zoning proposal still has to clear City Council. And even if it gets through, downtown visitors and residents in the dispensary exclusion zone won’t have to walk far to find a place to legally purchase cannabis. And come next May, they’ll have twice as many options.