by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer
CHICAGO (CBS) — Facing a potential City Council showdown over an alderman’s bid to push back the start of recreational marijuana sales in Chicago from January to July, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday said she’s confident she’ll be able to work out a compromise to avoid a delay.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who chairs the City Council Black Caucus, has moved to force a City Council vote this week on his proposal to delay legal weed sales in the city for six months.
Ervin’s ordinance has been bottled up in the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity since he introduced it in October, receiving only a subject matter hearing – but no vote – since then. So he has invoked a City Council rule allowing him to force a vote on proposed legislation after it’s sat idle for at least 60 days.
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) has scheduled a meeting on the ordinance for Tuesday, and if she calls it for a vote then, the 60-day clock would restart even if the committee approves the delay, and she wouldn’t have to call it for a vote by the full City Council at its next meeting on Wednesday.
Lightfoot sounded cautiously optimistic that, one way or another, she will avoid a delay in recreational marijuana sales in Chicago.
“I met with Alderman Ervin last week, and my staff continues to talk to he and other members of the Black Caucus,” she said. “I think we’re going to get there. I understand their concern. They want to make sure that this new law speaks to the inequities that have befallen black and brown communities, particularly over the war on drugs.”
The Black Caucus is upset that the 11 existing medical marijuana companies in Chicago that will be allowed to immediately begin recreational sales on Jan. 1 are owned almost exclusively by white men.
“Look, this is a challenging issue, there’s no question about it. This is a marketplace that was already created with the medical marijuana. The vast majority of people that are the entrepreneurs and business owners are white men, and we know that, and we will work as a city to make sure that we give opportunities for other people to be participants in this thriving market,” Lightfoot said.
Without going into specifics, the mayor said she believes there’s a deal to be worked out with the Black Caucus, and avoid Ervin’s bid to delay recreational sales.
“We have talked about a number of things that the city itself can do. Our powers are limited to affect the law itself, but there are other things that I think we can do to build support, particularly around black and brown applicants that are going to be applying to get licenses. So I feel comfortable that we’ll get there, and we’ll see,” she said.
New applicants have already started lining up for permission to open recreational marijuana dispensaries, but the state won’t name the winners of those 75 additional licenses until May.
Lightfoot said one of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs seeking to cash in on recreational marijuana is the cost of starting up a new dispensary or cultivation center.
“This is a very, very expensive business to get involved in. From what I understand, the basics to be a cultivator requires about a $13 to $15 million investment. There are not a lot of people that have that, particularly in a market that a lot of banks and other traditional financial lenders won’t touch,” Lightfoot said.
One way the mayor said she wants to help small business owners get started in the legal pot business is for the city to form a cooperative marijuana growing operation, and give minority entrepreneurs a chance to learn the business before taking it over themselves.
“We can bring a professional in, the professional will run it, but then people will buy into the cooperative either with a modest cash investment or sweat equity, and then eventually after they learn the business from top to bottom, turn that over to them,” she said.
Lightfoot said the city has a number of “regulatory hoops” to jump through first, but is hopeful they’ll be able to do so.
“I think the only way to really crack this nut is for the city to invest its own resources to get engaged, get diverse entrepreneurs involved in the most lucrative part of the business, which is cultivation,” she said.
As for how the city would pay to set up a marijuana cultivation co-op after just closing an $838 million budget deficit, the mayor said the city could tap unused tax increment financing dollars and available money from the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. That fund was set up in 2016 to get developers to pay for the right to build larger projects downtown in exchange for paying into a pool designed to help finance development in struggling communities.