Aldermen advanced Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal Wednesday to ease Chicago zoning rules to open marijuana dispensaries, which the mayor says would make it easier for minority applicants get into a lucrative business now dominated locally by white-owned companies.
Lightfoot’s plan would open up much more of the downtown area to allow marijuana businesses to set up shop.
Under the new proposal, only a small area of the city’s center would continue to exclude dispensaries, including Michigan Avenue downtown and in the South Loop, plus a stretch approaching Navy Pier from Michigan.
Current rules exclude a much bigger part of downtown stretching up into River North.
City analyst Will Shih told the Zoning Committee the hope is that allowing dispensaries to operate on more prime real estate will give minority cannabis license owners better opportunities to get their businesses up and running in Chicago.
Dozens of license holders in a first round of state marijuana license approvals opted to open in the suburbs, because the zoning process is easier in surrounding towns than in Chicago, Shih said.
Amid pushback Wednesday from Zoning Committee members worried the mayor’s new ordinance would not go far enough to protect the interests of Black and Latino entrepreneurs, the committee initially held off on a vote on the proposal.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, later told the committee he was working on language to help protect minority-owned cannabis companies. He said he would submit that language at a later date, and the committee in the meantime voted to advance the mayor’s plan.
Lightfoot also calls in the ordinance for easing some neighborhood zoning restrictions in outlying parts of the city, so license holders don’t get drawn into lengthy processes with aldermen and community groups while trying to open.
The mayor wanted to make it easier for dispensaries to open in even more neighborhood business districts, but several aldermen were resistant to giving up the power to require marijuana companies to get zoning changes in those areas, so she withdrew that idea, Shih said.
Her plan faced a fair amount of criticism Wednesday. With the state set to allow dozens of licenses in the Chicago area, Far South Side Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, said he still expects minority licensees to be forced to sell their licenses to better-funded white-owned marijuana conglomerates.
“We’re being hoodwinked once again, and here we are saying we have to hurry up and vote for this so social equity people can get a piece of the pie,” Beale said. “We are not getting a piece of this pie, because the same people who wrote this (state) law are the same people who own all the dispensaries.”
And Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, said Lightfoot’s plan won’t fix the existing problems that let white investors exploit minority applicants.
“We’ve had two years to get this right and continue this conversation, and we haven’t done that,” Lopez said.
The updated zoning proposal advances to the full City Council next week.