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Amid calls for more minority participation, marijuana ordinance passes City Council

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Chicago’s Black Caucus wanted to delay the legislation

The exterior of a Classical Revival Style building with vertical greek columns topped by Corinthian capitals.
It’s been an eventful 24 hours at City Hall.
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A controversial zoning ordinance regulating the sale of recreational cannabis was approved at Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting after it received several last-minute tweaks, including shrinking the size of the downtown “exclusion zone” and giving aldermen more control over marijuana zoning in their respective wards.

The revised legislation scales back the area in which pot dispensaries will be prohibited in Chicago’s Central Business District. The previous boundaries included Oak Street to the north, Lake Michigan to the east, Ida B. Wells Drive to the south, and LaSalle Street to the West. The updated, smaller exclusion zone now stretches from the lake to State Street, Division Street, and Van Buren.

The council’s Black Caucus pushed back on the ordinance for its lack of minority participation. The city’s 20 African-American aldermen delayed a vote at Tuesday’s committee meeting and threatened to introduce a measure that would push back the start of sales from January 1—when cannabis becomes legal statewide—to July. The delay would allow local officials to explore “more equitable solutions.”

Though Mayor Lightfoot said in September that the cannabis ordinance would create “opportunities for entrepreneurs from communities victimized by [the] War on Drugs to be at the forefront of developing equity and wealth from this emerging industry,” opponents disagreed with the assessment.

Under the current plan, the city’s 11 existing medical marijuana dispensaries would be the first to offer recreational pot and will have a considerable head start when it comes to opening secondary locations. None of those businesses are minority-owned, argued the Black Caucus.

“With this current plan, there will undoubtedly be economic loss and opportunities for African Americans,” said Jason Ervin, Black Caucus chairman and alderman of the 28th Ward, in a statement on Tuesday. “There is currently zero African American participation among the 11 existing dispensaries—who will get the first shot at the market during the first year of legalization.”

Mayor Lightfoot said she was sympathetic to the concerns of the Black Caucus, but suggested taking the issue up with state lawmakers. “The way to accomplish what they want to accomplish—which is to create avenues for minority business people to come into this marketplace—isn’t to kill it in Chicago,” said Lightfoot. “The way to fix this is in Springfield, through legislation.”

Alderman Ervin ultimately voted yes on the ordinance, stressing that while equity issues will still need to be addressed, passing zoning legislation is vital to having a mechanism in place for overseeing where Chicago’s marijuana dispensaries end up. “Without zoning, these things can go anywhere, with exception of what the state has excluded,” said Ervin. “What I do not want to see are [dispensaries] opening in areas where we don’t want them. The vehicle for equity will come in another form.”

Alderman Anthony Beale disagreed. “Yes, Springfield failed to address certain issues when it comes to equity in black and brown communities, but this body has home rule and can correct this,” said the 9th Ward official, who was one of ten council members to vote against the measure.

“How do we look in this great city by allowing cannabis to be rolled out with 22 licenses all owned by people who are not of color?” said Beale. “How do we start a game already down 22 to nothing?”