Evanston aldermen last month offered some initial directives for allowing a dispensary for recreational marijuana use to open next year – making the operations subject to special use zoning provisions and recommending a limit on their initial number.

At the Sept. 16 City Council meeting, aldermen provided some initial direction to the City’s Plan Commission, which is scheduled to begin hearing the issue later this month.

The Illinois General Assembly passed the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act in May, permitting the operation of dispensaries dispensing products for recreation use. Communities such as Evanston with a medical dispensary already in place will be allowed to open a separate establishment to sell product for recreation use as soon as Jan. 1.

PharmaCannis, which operates the medical dispensary in space at the City’s Maple Self Park Garage at 1804 Maple Ave., has already expressed interest in expanding their facility, for dual medical and recreational dispensary use.

City officials have not fixed  a firm figure on revenue they expect  the new business to generate, though counting it as a piece in their budget. In addition to the regular sales tax, the City can apply a 3% sales tax on recreation marijuana sales. 

Jeremy Unruh, Director of Regulatory & Government Affairs for Pharmacannis, reported that one of  that company’s dispensaries in Massachusetts generated $300,000 in revenue over six months and projected that figure to $600,000 for a year. “That’s premised on about $20 million total sales over the course of a year,” he told aldermen.

Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup noted that the new law allows local communities to opt out if they so wish.

“But if the City wants to regulate them we want to know how you want to regulate them,” she told Council members.

Aldermen, who will have another chance to discuss the ordinance when it comes back from the Plan Commission, offered suggestions in a number of areas:

Smoking lounges: Under the new law, smoking lounges are also permitted. Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said he would like to see the City adopt provisions matching current restrictions on smoking and vaping.

“I think smoking is unhealthy – that’s my personal opinion, so I would not want to support lounges.  There are other products  that can be, you know, ingested, so I don’t  have as much concern about the repercussions of those products,” he said.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, noted the Council had similar concerns about hookah lounges, when operators of those businesses were looking to open in Evanston. She noted that the City did not permit them.  “And I think that’s still our position,” she said.

Location and impact: Ald. Wilson suggested that approval of dispensaries be subject to special use, requiring operators to go through a public hearing process and allowing the City to impose specific operating conditions. Ald. Wynne expressed concern about their locations. State law allows local governments to address issues such as distance requirements, special use, hours of  operation and a cap on the number of dispensaries.

Staff presented a map showing three main areas where dispensaries could be located in compliance with distance standards (such as proximity to schools, daycare facilities, and related uses.
Based on the map, Ald. Wilson acknowledged, “It seems kind of arbitrary,” and recommended three as the limit of dispensaries in the City initially.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, asked about the City’s policy toward employees who might use the recreational dispensary. In their memo,  staff said questions for the Council include determining whether to allow or prohibit recreational marijuana use outside the workplace; identifying any positions for which adult cannabis use  would be  prohibited  outside the workplace; [such as sworn police and fire personnel] and evaluating the pre-employment drug testing policy.

“The City obviously would not want employees to come to work impaired,” observed Ald. Fleming. “On the other hand, I think our personnel policy should reflect that we also understand this is legal [outside the workplace] – we are not prying into what you do in your personal lives, and we’re expecting them [employees] to be productive and responsible when they are here.”

A map provided to Council members at their Oct. 14 meeting evoked questions about where and why the City would allow dispensaries for recreational marijuana.

Nonetheless, aldermen approved an ordinance allowing cannabis dispensaries in certain areas so that Pharmacannis would be able to open its dispensary on Jan. 1. The ordinance was a text amendment to the City’s zoning code that created a definition for a cannabis dispensary business; amended special uses in the downtown, commercial, business, Research Park, special purpose and overlay districts; and  established general provisions for the businesses, including separation requirements – 1, 500 feet from other dispensaries and 750 feet from schools.

Looking at the map, Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, objected to the possibility of a dispensary near Noyes Street and Maple Avenue. She said children take classes in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center there, and a Montessori school is nearby.

A discussion followed to try to distinguish daycare centers, including home daycare centers, from preschools for purposes of the proposed ordinance. A consensus arose among the aldermen that it would be almost impossible to create legal buffer zones around all the preschools and daycare centers and still have room for the dispensaries.

Ald. Fiske persisted in her objection to a dispensary near Noyes/Maple. Middle-school children and teens take classes at Piven Theatre Workshop and Actors Gymnasium, she said.

Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, urged his colleagues to approve the ordinance, even if the map were to change at a later date.

Aldermen approved an ordinance allowing dispensaries of recreational marijuana as a special use in the RP, D1, D2, D3, D4, C1a, C1, C2, B1, B1a, B2, B3, and O1 Zoning Districts as well as the oDM, oCSC, and oH Zoning Overlay Districts. The ordinance prohibits cannabis dispensaries in all R, M, T, U, I, WE1, and OS zoning districts as well as within any dwelling unit or rooming unit.

The ordinance also contains the distance requirement and limits hours of operation to 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.