CITY HALL — A City Council committee held off on a mayoral attempt to restrict where medical marijuana facilities could set up shop, but a powerful alderman made clear he wanted to "limit it in an extreme degree."
The ordinance proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Edward Burke (14th) would have used zoning laws to restrict medical marijuana cultivation centers and dispensaries to manufacturing districts within the city limits.
Burke said medical marijuana was "rife with abuse" in other states, and drew comparisons with Colorado, where recreational use of marijuana was recently legalized.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) countered that Illinois state law specifically limits medical marijuana "for those folks who really need it most," those suffering from "horrendous and sometimes terminal diseases."
He said comparisons with Colorado's new law were unjustified, and said he worried about placing unreasonable restrictions on the locations, especially for dispensaries.
"The Illinois law is, if not the most conservative, then one of the most conservative laws on this issue," said Ali Nagib, assistant director of the Illinois Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, under harsh questioning from Burke before the Zoning Committee.
Tami Marron, a licensed pharmacist and Lakeview resident who is trying to start a dispensary business, said she doubted she could find a location in the 44th Ward, if the ordinance were approved as is.
"I don't think it's in the best interests of our medical patients to be sending them to the far reaches of the city," she said.
Scott Helmstadter, a Lakeview resident suffering from chronic back pain, agreed.
"I'm just looking for a little relief. I'm not looking for an easy way to get high," Helmstadter said. "Don't make this harder for patients to get to these pharmacies."
Medical marijuana was legalized last year, but the state is still working on the regulations for cultivation centers and dispensaries.
According to Rose Kelly, senior counsel with the city's Law Department, the law already restricts cultivation centers and dispensaries from residential areas. She said dispensaries must be 1,000 feet from schools and day care centers, and cultivation centers must be 2,500 feet away.
The laws allows 22 cultivation centers statewide, one for each Illinois State Police district, including Cook County, and 60 dispensaries.
Burke said Chicago had the lion's share of the state's population, so "conceivably," 50 dispensaries could attempt to set up shop here.
Burke said he was outraged by the law's limits on home rule.
"It's seriously, without doubt, a serious matter for the City of Chicago to consider," he said, adding that the city "doesn't have a role in this new industry's regulation.
"We were asleep at the switch," Burke added, when the law passed the General Assembly last year. "I think we should apply the brakes here and now."
Burke suggested he'd like to see a citywide ban, but Kelly said, "I think that would be unreasonable" under the law as written.
Other aldermen, however, were more sympathetic. Ald. James Cappleman (46th) cited his experience working in a hospice, adding, "I fully believe in the benefits of the medical use of cannabis."
Aldermen Willie Cochran (20th) and Jason Ervin (28th) both wondered about extending permissible boundaries for dispensaries to medical campuses.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (28th) worried about the effect on the "underground market" of people legally allowed to possess marijuana.
"People come from all over the state to buy marijuana on the West Side," he said.
"I assume they're not licensed," Kelly responded.
Eventually, Burke granted: "This is a rather complicated issue I don't think we should rush into" and agreed to take up the issue later.
"We've been caught off guard," said Ald. Danny Solis (25th) on the law's ramifications, adding that it's a complex issue that requires more study.
At one point, Kelly said pot brownies also were considered appropriate medical treatment for some suffering patients.
"How do they taste?" Burnett asked.
Kelly responded, "I have no idea, alderman."