Editor’s note: This article has been updated with information about Council Member Bobby Burns’ personal connections to the cannabis industry.
Evanston could soon see a city council debate over the idea of allowing cannabis smoking lounges or other cannabis consumption establishments in town, thanks to a referral from Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward).
The city’s Human Services Committee discussed Reid’s proposal during its latest meeting on Tuesday night. in a memo to committee members, Health and Human Services Director Ike Ogbo said “the impetus to allow this activity is in an effort to increase revenue for the Reparations Fund,” which relies on marijuana taxes for its money.
Committee Chair and Council Member Bobby Burns (5th Ward), acknowledged Tuesday that the city only has one marijuana dispensary at the moment, which has hampered funding for the local reparations initiative.
But Council Member Krissie Harris (2nd Ward) said she was worried about reparations efforts becoming overly associated with something like cannabis smoking lounges or on-site consumption rooms in dispensaries.
“In Evanston, we probably don’t have the size of property that is going to attract craft grow organizations, so we’re probably only going to attract infusers and dispensary license holders, and that’s all,” Burns said in response to Harris’ concerns. “And just in the way we adopted the reparations ordinance, it is literally tied to our ability to expand our cannabis businesses.”
Back in 2021, around the same time he was first elected to City Council, Burns and his team at Herban Garden LLC won a cannabis craft grow license. Asked by the RoundTable about possible conflicts of interest, Burns said he has no intent to open a cannabis business in Evanston, instead looking for a warehouse space in Chicago.
Herban Garden is not operational yet, with Burns still raising funds to officially launch the craft grow business.
“If it wasn’t for reparations, I would have no motivation to have more cannabis businesses locate here, to be honest,” he said.
In introducing the concept to the committee on Tuesday, Reid argued that the effects of alcohol are just as damaging, if not more harmful, than the effects of smoking cannabis. As a result, he suggested treating cannabis lounges like bars, for example, with heavy city regulation.
Reid and Ogbo also mentioned how, due to local codes like Evanston’s Clean Air Ordinance, residents may not have any way to use marijuana legally if their apartment buildings or properties ban the substance. Smoking lounges could provide a solution to that potential issue, Reid said.
During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, Donald Zeigler, a professor of global health and the chair of the Evanston Health Advisory Council, said he opposed any cannabis lounges due to the risks of spreading secondhand smoke, and the harmful effects of consuming any kind of smoke, from cannabis or tobacco. Smoking cannabis should be banned wherever smoking tobacco is also illegal, he said.
“I found Mr. Zeigler’s comments to be very helpful and important, and I’m inclined to agree with his view that this would be a mistake,” said Council Member Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward).
Illinois state law currently allows local governments to amend their ordinances to permit “on-premises consumption” of cannabis “in a dispensing organization or retail tobacco store.” Any locations with smoking lounges legally have to feature a “specifically designated area” for smoking with locked doors or barriers.
The committee did not vote on the proposal Tuesday, and members asked city staff to provide more research on other cities investigating the same idea for the next meeting.
Later in Tuesday’s meeting, the committee also tackled an idea from Revelle about changing the local weed ordinance to allow residents to grow out their lawns or backyards in early spring.
The initiative, designed to encourage homeowners to cultivate a more sustainable and natural landscape, has gained a national following in a movement now known as “No-mow May.”
Currently, the local weed ordinance bars property owners from letting any “weeds,” as defined by the city, grow to more than eight inches in height. Revelle’s referral, though, suggests an amendment to the ordinance to allow weeds and yards, in general, to grow past eight inches during the first two weeks of May.
Wendy Pollock, co-chair of the city’s Environment Board, said she and other staff agreed that Evanston should not officially endorse No-mow May, but the city can at least allow residents to participate, if they want. Plus, allowing plants, and even weeds, to grow more naturally with less human interference can create a more vibrant overall ecosystem, she said.
“A young woman in her senior year at ETHS said to me recently, when I told her what we’d been doing there, she lit up and said, ‘Oh, it seems as if the Arboretum’s been getting bigger over the last couple of years,'” Pollock said. “So I think the perception was that it was more interesting to walk through, more refreshing. From a human point of view, a mental health point of view, we also recommend it.”
Committee members ultimately voted for city staff to draft an ordinance amendment allowing unfettered lawn growth the first two weeks of May, though Harris said with a laugh, “I’ll be cutting my grass.”
Changes to the crime bulletin?
Another major proposal going before the committee is a suggestion from Reid for the police department to stop publishing names and addresses of arrested individuals. Currently, anyone subscribing to the city’s daily crime bulletin receives a link to a document detailing any recent incident reports and arrests in Evanston.
The committee voted to table its discussion on the matter until it could receive more legal advice, but Reid said the city has no obligation to publicly post identifying information about people who have been arrested.
“Folks who are on that list have not been convicted of a crime. It could give out the wrong message,” Reid said. “It potentially causes undue burden to residents who, again, have not yet been found guilty.”