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Why is Chicago’s mayor supporting illegal cannabis sellers?

September 18, 2019
Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Mayor, Illinois marijuana legalizatin
Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to ban cannabis shops from downtown Chicago. She may not realize that will boost street sales of illegal, untested vape cartridges and other products. (frederic prochasson/iStock, AP Photo/Nuccio DiNuzzo)

‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s opinion column on cannabis politics and culture.

In Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times, reporter Tom Schuba laid out a compelling case for embracing retail cannabis stores in one of America’s greatest cities. Headline: “Crime fell near pot shops after marijuana was fully legalized, Colorado study shows.”

The Mayor is afraid that tourists and business people might be offended by cannabis stores. Who does she think is buying cannabis?

Just as Leafly found in our study of dispensary myths earlier this year, Schuba reported that “new research shows crime rates dropped substantially in areas with marijuana dispensaries, running counter to fears that pot shops drum up crime.” His story anticipated the expected fears that many Illinois residents may have regarding adult-use legalization, which is scheduled to start statewide on Jan. 1, 2020.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot reacted to the Sun-Times story in a rather odd manner. Three days after its publication, she proposed banning retail cannabis stores from Chicago’s Central Business District and residential areas. Because… why, exactly?

Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar explained. Mayekar told the Associated Press that a downtown “exclusion zone” is warranted because of its high density of business and tourists. (Chicago actually has a law that defines the Central Business District. It’s enormous. If you’re at Navy Pier above Lake Michigan, the far western edge of the Business District is more than two miles away.)

Related

Leafly study debunks dispensary myths around crime & teen use

Mayor’s plan: Boost illegal sales

So instead of licensing and regulating cannabis stores, Mayor Lightfoot wants to boost the illegal cannabis market in the downtown core and in residential neighborhoods. Because that’s what happens when regulated stores are prohibited: Illicit sellers thrive. Unlicensed delivery services pop up.

Chicago residents, denied the opportunity to purchase clean, safe, lab-tested products, will resort to illicit-market products like the toxic vape pen cartridges that are currently killing people around the country.

We know this because it’s happening right now in California. One of the earliest cases of vape lung distress came out of rural Kings County, California. Why Kings County? Because no licensed, regulated cannabis stores are allowed there. So local consumers resort to illegal, untested products—which last month put seven people in the hospital.

Are Chicagoans this frail?

City Hall’s reasoning has me confused. Does Mayor Lightfoot believe Chicago’s thriving business district would be thrown into chaos by the opening of a handful of licensed cannabis boutiques?

When did Chicago turn into a city of fearful pearl-clutchers?

I’m surprised she believes her city’s adults have such little resilience, responsibility, and willpower. I think of Ditka, Oprah, Obama, and Royko when I think of Chicago—strong, tough characters. Perhaps I’m mistaken.

There are currently about 870 licensed bars serving alcohol in Chicago. Hundreds of them serve businesspeople in the Central Business District. Available evidence indicates that their presence has little deleterious effect on the suit-and-tie crowd’s ability to carry out the tasks of the day. In fact, it’s rumored that business transactions may actually occur within these establishments.

Tourists: Shops are features, not bugs

And those tourists? Well, you don’t have to tell me about tourists avoiding cities with cannabis stores. Seattle (40 million annual visitors, eighth straight year of record tourism growth), Denver (tourism revenue hit a record $6.5 billion in 2017), San Francisco (26 million annual visitors), and Las Vegas (42 million people per year) have clearly turned into ghost towns since their legal stores opened.

Want to know how much tourists loathe cannabis? Stop by the Herban Legends store or Have a Heart’s Belltown outlet on the day a cruise ship is docked along the nearby Seattle waterfront. Pack a lunch, because you’ll be waiting behind a long line of out-of-towners thrilled to make their first legal cannabis purchase.

Open stores. Make Chicago better and safer

I get it, Mayor Lightfoot. You’re anxious. Maybe even a little scared. When you try to imagine a cannabis store, you probably think of the scuzziest vape shop or liquor store. I’ve seen this happen in every single state that’s legalized. People imagine the worst. And then when they actually walk into a cannabis boutique, they’re shocked at how clean, safe, attractive, and normal the whole experience is.

Look at the data, Mayor Lightfoot. Use evidence, not fear, to drive policy.

Earlier this year, Leafly’s editorial staff took a look at the deepest fears—about crime, underage use, and property values—and found hard evidence dispelling every one of them. Crime does not rise (in many places, it falls), teen use remains unchanged or falls, and property values remain the same or rise.

Look into the available data, Mayor Lightfoot. Then come out to Seattle. Visit Denver. Stop in to a legal, licensed store in Boston. Or Las Vegas. Or San Francisco. See for yourself. And reconsider your urge to keep the illegal sellers, and their toxic vape cartridges, thriving on the streets of Chicago.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

View Bruce Barcott's articles

  • Johnny Johnson

    How about city council meet with the current less-reputable growers and offer them a deal to go legit? Subsidize upgrades to bring their operations up to code, allow for rapid approval of licenses to grow and test (especially for testing – let those operations proliferate), don’t tax for 10 years, allow open sales a la farmer’s markets (reduces the number of ground-level sellers but allows for local growers to keep their best sales reps), legalize delivery services on day 1, and let the market do its thing. Start regulating when the operations start getting big. Do that, and the black market eliminates itself, and Big Weed doesn’t get a foothold over locals.

  • hahah this sounds interesting , the government just have to support the mayor because cannabis sounds good to me when it been sold illegal.. lol

  • ticobird

    “instead of licensing and regulating cannabis stores, Mayor Lightfoot wants to boost the illegal cannabis market in the downtown core and in residential neighborhoods. Because that’s what happens when regulated stores are prohibited: Illicit sellers thrive. Unlicensed delivery services pop up.”

    This thinking is so backwards I have trouble wrapping my head around it. Of course this situation will change in time but she needs to lead rather than pandering to her perceived constituents. She just won the Chicago mayoral reelection earlier this year which means she still has 1.5 years to change her mind. Let’s hope she sees the light of day sooner rather than later. I am hopeful this is nothing more than money because that can be changed. If this is about ideology then Chicago is screwed for the next 1.5 years.

  • Delta Nine

    I live in Chicago. This seems to me to be senseless and incredibly shortsighted.

  • Pete

    We can add her to the great list of crackpot politicians that have come before her… What a genius…? I bet she gets another term… 🤬

  • BA5578

    Bruce- I think you’re asking the wrong question. When you stated “Mayor Lightfoot wants to boost the illegal cannabis market in the downtown core and in residential neighborhoods”, that’s merely collateral damage. The focus here should be on the “870 licensed bars serving alcohol in Chicago”. The alcohol lobby is VERY powerful. Don’t forget how many millions of dollars Insys poured into the anti- cannabis movement in Arizona. Alcohol companies have been doing the same in every state- it’s just not as high- profile. I’d wager that the alcohol lobby is hard at work in Chicago.
    Just consider how much money would be taken from the bars if legal cannabis stores opened up around downtown.
    That’s ALWAYS the bottom line. $$$

  • BA5578

    Bruce- I think you’re asking the wrong question. When you stated “Mayor Lightfoot wants to boost the illegal cannabis market in the downtown core and in residential neighborhoods”, I believe that’s merely collateral damage. The focus here should be on the “870 licensed bars serving alcohol in Chicago”. The alcohol lobby is VERY powerful. Don’t forget how many millions of dollars Insys poured into the anti- cannabis movement in Arizona. Alcohol companies have been doing the same thing in every state- it’s just not as high- profile. I’d wager that the alcohol lobby is hard at work in Chicago.
    Just consider how much money would be taken from the bars if legal cannabis stores opened up around downtown.
    That’s ALWAYS the bottom line. $$$