by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer

CHICAGO (CBS) — After a temporary delay last week, the City Council on Monday voted to lift restrictions on marijuana sales in most of downtown, and to ease zoning rules throughout the rest of the city, in what supporters said is a bid to help more minority cannabis license holders open up shop in Chicago.

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The 33-13 vote came six days after two aldermen used a parliamentary maneuver to postpone the vote amid complaints the ordinance does not do enough to truly protect Black and Brown marijuana license holders.

The changes in the ordinance are aimed at making it easier for firms owned by minorities to get in on the legal marijuana business in Illinois, by allowing pot dispensaries to open in most of downtown, where they are currently prohibited from operating.

The city’s current rules prohibit marijuana dispensaries from opening in an area bounded from Lake Michigan on the east to LaSalle Street on the west and Oak Street on the north; and south of the Chicago River in the Loop area from Lake Michigan on the east to the Chicago River on the west, and south to Ida B. Wells Drive.

The proposed change would significantly reduce that “exclusion zone,” by prohibiting pot sales between State Street and Michigan Avenue from Division to Van Buren streets, along Michigan Avenue from Van Buren Street to 16th Street, and between Ohio and Illinois streets from Michigan Avenue to Navy Pier.

The new rules also would eliminate the seven cannabis zones the city is currently divided into, and lift the cap of seven dispensaries in each zone.

The ordinance also would ease zoning requirements for marijuana dispensaries and marijuana cultivation operations across the city. The mayor wants to make it easier for dispensaries to open in some business and commercial districts without special permission from city officials, and to allow businesses that grow, process, or infuse marijuana products to open in some manufacturing districts, as long as they’re at least 650 feet away from homes.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) said state law first should be changed to make sure minority business owners can truly benefit from the booming legal pot industry in Illinois.

“We can slow down, we can do this right,” Lopez said. “I know that, while we are yet again trying to correct the mistake of Springfield, this will not help those individuals who we are truly trying to make whole because of the laws of the past.” Lopez said.

The state law legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana gives a leg up to so-called “social equity” applicants who are seeking licenses. To qualify for social equity status, marijuana business owners must either live in an area disproportionately hurt by the war on drugs, have a prior arrest or conviction for low-level marijuana crimes, or hire a staff most of whom meet those criteria.

However, critics have said many social equity license holders have ended up being forced to sell their licenses to wealthier White owners, because they can’t afford all of the financial burdens that come with the state licensing process.

“Half the people who are going to benefit from this rush job are fronts for individuals who are not true social equity individuals,” Lopez said. “Let’s get this right, let’s do right by those most impacted.”

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Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) claimed the marijuana industry itself wrote the city’s new rules in order to protect existing dispensaries, which are almost exclusively owned by White corporations.

“The industry does not want people of color part of this program. We know that. When are we going to continue to stop going along to get along? When are we going to stand up and truly fight for our communities?” Beale said. “People of color have been hurt historically by the war on drugs, and here we are again saying the sky is falling, we need to hurry up and pass this so social equity people can get a piece of the pie, and half of these people are fronts, the other half are going to sell their licenses.”

But Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who chairs the City Council Black Caucus, said holding off on the ordinance until the Illinois General Assembly acts on demands for better protections for social equity applicants would only benefit existing White-owned marijuana companies, and prevent minority license holders from cashing in on the marijuana industry.

“The sky really isn’t falling, but it is raining, and it’s raining $100 bills, and some of us will not have the opportunity to partake in those proceeds,” Ervin said.

Ervin said it’s important for city government to give social equity applicants the opportunity to set up shop downtown, and to make the process for operating in the neighborhoods easier, given how few marijuana businesses have opened up in the city compared to the suburbs.

“It does create the opportunity for businesses to come down, these new licensees to come down, get involved in participating, and so hopefully they can catch some of those $100 bills,” Ervin said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, while she agrees state law needs to be changed to better support social equity license holders, she said the city also needs to make it easier for those businesses to operate in Chicago.

“If we make it impossible for people to do business in the city of Chicago, they’ll move,” she said

However, Lightfoot said the city has the power over only two matters when it comes to marijuana businesses: deciding whether they can operate in the city, and setting zoning rules for where they can set up shop.

The mayor noted the city has no control over deciding who qualifies as a social equity applicant, or what the city’s cut of tax revenue will be, much as she might want to change both of those.

“This is now a multibillion-dollar industry and municipalities like Chicago are getting pennies on the dollar,” she said.

In particular, Lightfoot said she takes issue with allowing businesses to qualify as a social equity applicant simply by having a majority of their workforce meet the criteria, even if no one in an ownership role does.

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“That’s wrong, and that definition could absolutely be changed, but the place to do that is not the floor of the City Council. It’s in the halls of Springfield, with the General Assembly,” she said. “That’s where this should have started.”

CBS 2 Chicago Staff