Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks as Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker looks on at a press conference at McCormick Place April 3, 2020. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers / Flickr

A pair of proposed Chicago ordinances would reduce the size of the city’s “exclusion zone” where dispensaries could be located in downtown. But, the proposals might get caught up in a power struggle between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and city aldermen, and may not address cannabis companies’ concern with how long it takes to obtain city regulatory approvals.

Mayor Lightfoot’s proposal would change zoning limitations to vastly increase the number of potential locations cannabis dispensaries, infusers, and cultivators could locate in the city, eliminate the city’s seven districts for locating cannabis businesses, reduce the size of the downtown exclusion zone – but still keep the core central business district free of cannabis businesses.

A proposal from Ald. Gilbert Villegas would eliminate the downtown exclusion zone entirely, but not lift the city’s current zoning restrictions.

Both changes, however, would still require applicants to submit to the special use permit process, requiring approval by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, an undertaking that can sometimes add months of additional time to the permitting process.

As reported by Block Club Chicago, the proposed changes are already getting swept up in a long-running battle between Chicago aldermen and Mayor Lightfoot over how much authority aldermen should have over siting businesses in their home wards. Some leading aldermen, including Ald. Villegas, have expressed concern that Mayor Lightfoot’s proposal is merely an end run around so-called “Aldermanic privilege” to managing zoning in their wards, possibly forcing cannabis businesses in neighborhoods that don’t want them.

Meanwhile, new cannabis businesses with new licenses for the Chicago area are contemplating the value of locating their new cannabis business in Chicago versus the suburbs.

“There’s a lot of loopholes you gotta jump through with zoning and all the different [city] divisions. If they made it easier, we would definitely consider it,” said Mike Perez, who operates two suburban EarthMed dispensaries and was awarded a new adult-use dispensary license for the Chicago area in the state’s July 29 license lottery. “I can’t complain about the suburbs.”

“What typically people view as prime real estate does not play out when we’re talking about cannabis,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez, an openly cannabis-consuming alderman who has taken leadership on the issue. He says there are some behind the scenes discussions in City Hall about how the process can be made easier for smaller cannabis companies.

“Larger companies can withstand the wait, but your first time licensee wouldn’t be able to sustain the process. So, how do you help the little guys move more quickly?” he said.

Both Ald. Villegas and Mayor Lightfoot’s office declined to comment for this article.

In the last two years, most of the cannabis licenses processed in Chicago have been for well capitalized, vertically-integrated companies like Cresco Labs, NuEra, and Windy City Cannabis. The city has yet to deal with more “mom and pop” cannabis operations that may not have lobbyists and land use attorneys on retainer.

Still, one busy city lobbyist says cannabis license approval has gotten faster.

“That whole process has become less cumbersome entirely. We’ve seen folks go through the process faster because the public understands it more, the board understands it more,” said John Daley, a lobbyist in Chicago.

The Chicago City Council is on summer break for August, and could take up new cannabis zoning rules as early as next month.


Editor Mike is a co-founder and the editor of Grown In, a U.S. national cannabis industry newsletter and training company. His career has taken him from Capitol Hill to Chicago City Hall, from...