An amendment to allow cannabis smoking lounges in Evanston will move to the full city council for consideration despite a strong objection from local health community leaders, who say the change would undercut their efforts.
At the Feb. 6 council Human Services Committee meeting, Council Member Juan Geracaris (9th Ward) joined Council Members Bobby Burns (5th Ward) and Devon Reid (8th Ward) in a 3-2 vote to move the issue to the council.
Council and Human Services Committee members Krissie Harris (2nd Ward) and Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward) voted against.
Reid had made the original referral that the committee consider amending Evanston’s current zoning ordinance, which prohibits the consumption of cannabis at any business establishment within the city.
He and other advocates of the amendment have argued the amendment should be viewed as an equity issue for residents who live in properties where cannabis consumption is prohibited – such as rental units, apartments and multi-family buildings, including those on Northwestern University’s campus.
“Providing a legal location for consumption allows all residents to have equitable opportunities without breaking the law,” wrote Ike Ogbo, the city’s Health & Human Services director, in a memo explaining the advocates’ reasoning. “Additionally, building code requirements and special use conditions would ensure appropriate ventilation of the facility, which would minimize impacts on other properties in comparison to illegal consumption elsewhere with lingering smoke.”
Undercutting public health
A number of city health professionals, as well as the American Heart Association and the Respiratory Health Association, oppose the proposal, signing an opposition to the city amending its ordinance.
Speaking for the group, Donald Zeigler, chair of the city’s Health Advisory Council, told committee members at the Feb. 6 meeting, “We believe that is unwise and would undercut public health, the city’s indoor air policies and achievement of Evanston’s five-year-health plan (EPLAN), which pledges to advance health and racial equity.”
He said the group’s recommendation “is based on sound and growing science.” Creating allowances for cannabis or vaping in public settings can expose non-cannabis users to secondhand cannabis by products which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contain some of those chemicals in higher amounts.
The American Lung Association specifically states: “No one should be exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke.”
“The Tobacco Control Legal Consortium clearly states that allowing marijuana smoking in places where smoking is now prohibited will undermine laws that protect the public from exposure to secondhand smoke,” Zeigler further told committee members.
He also said that secondhand cannabis byproducts contain many of the same toxic and cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke, some at even higher levels. But there is a perception that cannabis is safer. Allowing public use would only add to that idea, he said.
C. Louise Brown, retired public health director for the City of Evanston and a registered nurse, and Derrick Cabrera, community advocacy director for the American Heart Association, also voiced opposition at the meeting.
Janet Kirby, a psychiatrist and a First Ward resident, expressed concern from the mental health side.
“Psychiatrists are generally concerned about the liberalization and expansion of marijuana use because we are uniquely informed about its adverse effects on the brain, including the developing brain, and the brain is still developing into the late 20s,” she told committee members.
“Allowing cannabis lounges in Evanston would essentially be an advertisement for the normalization and expansion of marijuana use,” she said. “Evanston being a college town, and most college students possessing fake ID cards, we can safely assume 18-year-olds and some even younger would be entering these establishments.
“While many are already partaking in private, having a lounge where you can just show up, use and meet others, will make it even easier and more attractive.”
Reid: Proposal aligns with Illinois law
In committee discussion, however, council member Reid argued that what he is proposing “aligns with the values that folks are stating at the podium.
“You know, we legalized cannabis in our state – we understand that we cannot control folks growing a plant and consuming that plant. So that’s understood,” he said.
At the same time, he said, “we’ve also made it illegal to consume that plant in public so where are people going to consume it?
“When you have the cannabis consumption lounges, you can keep that stuff out of your home and not have it accessible to your children and not expose your children,” he argued. Further, he said, consumption will be taking place “in an area or a facility that has filtered air, that meets all of the standards that are laid out under state law.”
As for concerns about marijuana use, he said: “The battle on prohibition of cannabis and THC is lost here in Illinois and [will soon likely] be losing at the federal law. And so the best thing we can do is figure out how to reasonably and responsibly regulate the use.”
Council member Burns argued along similar lines, saying,“I don’t think is the right time yet to debate whether or not we want to debate the moral issue around allowing adults to consume legal substances.” If that were the case, “I think we need to stop probably issuing as many liquor licenses if we’re going to renew a debate about legal substances being consumed that may have a health impact.”
Burns is listed on the Secretary of State’s website as a manager for Herban Garden, awarded one of the state’s initial 40 marijuana craft grower licenses.
Cannabis lounges require special use licenses
Currently, only a handful of Illinois municipalities allow cannabis consumption establishments or even have incorporated ordinances allowing the activity, said Health & Human Services Director Ogbo.
Mundelein requires a detailed operations plan and includes provisions regarding security, customer safety training, as well as customer communication protocol regarding impaired driving, overconsumption policies and ride share options, he said.
From a zoning standpoint, a cannabis lounge would be regarded as special use, meaning an applicant would have to go through a public hearing process and might need to meet certain conditions in order to receive a license.
Council member Geracaris stressed that process, after casting the deciding vote, moving the issue to the council. He said, “This is allowing the possibility.”
As a public health and cannabis professional and Evanston resident, I’m in support of consumption lounges not only for the harm reduction but for our financial health
Did Ald. Bobby Burns recuse him self or did he vote? Doesn’t he have a conflict of interest in this matter as a one of the 40 people to receive a marijuana craft grow license from the State of Illinois?
Also did the issue of DUI’s come up? Whose responsibility will it be to make sure that customers are not allowed to drive high? How does Evanston Police enforce marijuana DUI’s currently?