Suburban movements fight for and against selling marijuana in communities

Chicago area suburbs considering whether to allow marijuana sales within municipal boundaries have encountered efforts from residents on both sides of the issue:

An “Opt Out” movement that began in Naperville has spawned similar efforts in several other communities across the North, Northwest and West suburbs, pleading with city councils and village boards to ban the sales of adult-use marijuana within their boundaries…

An “Opt In” movement, though in some cases less overtly organized or connected, is present in many places, too, and just as passionate about its message that recreational marijuana stores should be allowed…

At the heart of the opt out effort, supporters say, is a desire to protect children from the potential harms of normalized marijuana use..

Supporters promote the value of potential tax revenue for municipal projects and point out marijuana use and possession will be legal no matter where the stores set up.

Three quick thoughts:

1. It sounds like the speed by which these efforts have coalesced across suburbs is partly attributable to social media. Through different platforms, it is relatively easy to promote a particular message and alert supporters about local meetings.

2. Pitting the safety of children versus potential revenue for suburbs pits important suburban values against each other. Arguably, the suburbs are all about kids: the whole structure is set up to help them get ahead, to do better than their parents, to have good educational opportunities within a safe and family-friendly environment. At the same time, budgets are tight in many suburbs and extra revenue could help provide all sorts of civic goods (including reducing the tax burdens of residents). Which argument wins out may depend on how the suburb sees itself.

3. It is hard to know at this point where the dispensaries might be located, with or without decisions made by individual communities. At first, Illinois will award 75 licenses. Given the population of the Chicago region plus the wealth present in numerous suburban communities, where will firms want to open shop? Is it as simple as going for the wealthiest customers within a certain radius of the store or are there other considerations of the best locations for marijuana dispensaries?

Marijuana sales viewed as hurting family-friendly suburbs, Naperville edition

Tuesday night the Naperville City Council voted against allowing marijuana dispensaries to locate within the suburb:

Naperville City Council members voted 6-3 Tuesday to opt out of recreational marijuana sales within city limits, and directed staff to come back with information on a potential referendum question for council consideration.

The decision to opt out of recreational pot sales came several hours after hundreds of people began packing the Naperville City Council chambers as residents and non-residents waited their turn to comment on the issue of whether to allow the retail sale of pot. The discussion on marijuana sales brought 238 people to sign up for public comment on the topic — a vast majority speaking in favor of opting out while wearing white and orange “opt out” shirts.

Over the past couple weeks, the group was organized to rally and lobby city council members to keep recreational cannabis dispensaries out of Naperville. At the same time, residents in support of retail marijuana sales have circulated a survey on the issue.

People who asked city council to opt out Tuesday night are concerned recreational pot dispensaries would lead to increased availability to children and would hurt the “family friendly” brand of Naperville.

This is not a surprise. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the likelihood that wealthier suburbs would not want to sully their brand by allowing marijuana sales. A community like Naperville has a reputation to protect: it is large, wealthy, has a vibrant downtown, highly-rated school districts, and acres upon acres of single-family homes. While marijuana sales may do little to affect behavior in a community of over 140,000 residents, this is about an image. Not too long ago, the vibrant downtown presented a similar issue: alcohol-related incidents were getting out of hand and the city responded.

At the same time, Naperville could change its mind later. Perhaps the dispensaries will not cause issue in similar communities. Perhaps the city will want the extra sales tax revenue. Perhaps the group that turned up in large numbers in front of the City Council to opt out will fade away and advocates will win the day. But, at least for now, Naperville wants to – and to be honest, does not need to look for quick money or be on the leading edge of this – protect its brand.

More broadly, how long until marijuana sales and use becomes normal fare in the American suburbs? For decades, some claimed the suburbs makes people conservative: they want to protect their families and homes. However, the political tides of suburbia have turned (including in DuPage County as well as in Naperville) and attitudes toward marijuana and other drugs have changed.

Suburbs do not want to sully their character by allowing marijuana sales

Selling marijuana may soon be legal in Illinois but this does not mean suburbs necessarily want to be places where this happens:

Naperville, Lake Barrington and Bloomingdale plan to officially ban sales, Libertyville leans toward the same and the mayor of Batavia said he will issue a veto if necessary.

Des Plaines officials have expressed concerns and are doing more research before deciding, which also will happen in Lincolnshire and Bartlett.

To date, only South Elgin and Elburn said they are OK with allowing one marijuana retail store…

Municipalities can choose to not allow marijuana stores within their boundaries, or can enact “reasonable” zoning ordinances and regulate how many and where they are located. That can include minimum distances from “sensitive” locations such as colleges and universities, the law states.

Imagine a suburban landscape starting in January where marijuana is primarily sold in communities that are not as wealthy and/or white. Does this lessen their reputation and bolster the status of communities that do not allow sales?

It will be interesting to see if the communities that are now saying no continue to hold out against marijuana retailers in order to preserve a particular character. The carrot being offered is extra sales tax revenue that municipalities can collect. A wealthier suburb might see adjacent communities benefiting from extra funds and decide they want a cut of it. Or, perhaps they do not see that other suburbs are viewed negatively because they allow marijuana sales so they decide to jump in.

Growing real estate segment: commercial cannabis real estate

A new startup wants to help buyers and sellers identify properties that are eligible to grow and/or sell marijuana:

Chicago’s real estate industry is in the midst of a few building booms, but if a new startup has its way, another one is about to bloom: commercial cannabis real estate. HerbFront, co-founded by CEO Alan O’Connell and Matt Chapdelaine, head of business development, want to create the Zillow of marijuana-based real estate. Their concept, which they’re developing at the ElmSpring accelerator at 1871 and plan to release in February, is a tool that lets investors see where they can legally locate dispensaries and grow operations, and helps property owners discover if buildings in their portfolio qualify for this potentially lucrative market. According to O’Connell, zoning rules and regulations can make locating a dispensary or grow operation complicated, but the huge upside means entrepreneurs are looking for someone to help point them in the right direction.

“There’s a lot of murky water in the industry, right now,” says Chapdelaine. “A lot of people are looking to access real estate, and real estate people are looking to access the industry.”

HerbFront will offer an array of services, from listing a property for $50 on its database to leasing the software to providing specialized business intelligence to investors and municipalities, in effect becoming a consultancy as well as a marketplace for these industry-specific property transactions. Chapdelaine, who has background as a broker, saw what happened during the last permit application process in Illinois, and believes his program can fill an important gap, as well as provide a form of insurance for those spending at least $250,000 to obtain a permit. With that kind of down payment to start a small business, obtaining a guarantee from HerbFront that potential sites are properly zoned becomes valuable (or so the founders hope).

I could see how this service might be valuable. But, it seems less difficult to map the available properties than it will be to predict and/or know what these properties might be worth. How profitable are such facilities? Are there other businesses or services that want to be or are needed near marijuana facilities? More broadly, could these be tools for economic development? From what I read about planning for such facilities in different Chicago suburbs, there is still hesitation based on what kind of people and activity such facilities could attract as well as how they might affect the reputation and image of the community. But, if they became a unique opportunity for economic development, perhaps communities would be falling over themselves to attract one.

Can a pleasant suburb like Naperville have medical marijuana facilities?

Naperville officials are looking into how to regulate future medical marijuana facilities in their community:

Naperville will begin considering zoning regulations for medical marijuana businesses Tuesday night as councilmen review staff recommendations to limit such facilities to industrial parks, set a distance requirement from residential areas and require all medical marijuana operations to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis instead of allowed outright.

The proposed zoning code updates, which also would prohibit medical marijuana cultivation centers or dispensing organizations from opening in downtown and general commercial areas, are set to be considered during a council meeting at 7 p.m. in the municipal center, 400 S. Eagle St…

Naperville’s possible zoning changes are in addition to state restrictions that say cultivation centers cannot be within 2,500 feet of the property line of a school, day care center or residential area, and only one can open in each of the 22 state police districts statewide…

He said keeping dispensaries out of downtown and allowing only one in each strip mall or collection of buildings under the same ownership will help prevent the new businesses from being too widespread…

“The dispensaries are more like a pharmacy and should be allowed in retail areas,” Chirico said. “Legal, prescribed medication shouldn’t be restricted to an industrial park.”

It will be interesting to watch how wealthier suburbs treat medical marijuana facilities which are legal but probably not very desirable in these communities. Are the dispensaries better or worse than tattoo parlors? (If I had to vote, I’d go with better.) The interest in putting a dispensary only in industrial areas certainly would help keep it out view and away from impressionable people.

But, I could imagine a scenario where a resident of such a community is able to effectively tell how they need the marijuana to relieve pain from a life threatening illness and they don’t want to be made to feel like a ne’er-do-well in their own suburb. Telling that story in the right setting might make the community leaders and residents look uncaring and callous.

A much less constructive use of McMansions: using them to grow “McPot”

While some have suggested taking abandoned or foreclosed McMansions and putting them to constructive uses (see an example here and here), there are also less constructive uses:

Manteca Police filled a huge dumpster to the brim with some $2 million worth of marijuana plants after executing a search warrant at a home midway between Woodward Park and South Main Street

Sgt. Chris Mraz, heading up the four-member Street Crimes Unit (SCU), said the search of the 4,000-square-foot, two-story rental home in the 1800 block of Arlington Court contained the largest marijuana grow he has ever seen within the city of Manteca.

Elaborate marijuana growing operations have been found in other Manteca neighborhoods in the so-called McMansions due to their massive square footage. The last such large operation was found off Pestana Avenue near Joshua Cowell School…

The in-house nursery was highly sophisticated with growing operations underway in every room of the house, Mraz said, except for one bedroom that was used by one of the two men in a caretaker role. He noted that the plants found in the grow operation went from seedlings to fully mature plants. The Street Crimes Unit lead detective said the grow made the one found last year in a vacant building in the Manteca Industrial Park look insignificant in comparison.

This sounds like a plot of a typical movie depicting the suburbs: who knows what your suburban neighbors are really doing next door.

Just how many McMansions are home to such plots?

At the same time, the amount of water and electricity needed for this operation would fit the stereotype that McMansions are not green at all.

Two ways to deal with drug offenders

Whatever your stance on U.S. drug policy, I think few people could disagree that courts deal with infractions very differently depending on who is breaking the law, as two recent news items painfully illustrate.

Way #1:  Throwing the Book at Them

This American Life has a podcast this week telling

the story of Lindsey Dills, who forges two checks on her parents’ checking account when she’s 17, one for $40 and one for $60, and ends up in drug court for five and a half years, including 14 months behind bars, and then she serves another five years after that—six months of it in [Georgia’s] Arrendale State Prison, the other four and a half on probation.

Listening to the hour-long program, I thought I had mistakenly swapped the podcast out for a Dickens and/or Kafka audiobook.

Ms. Dills is, needless to say, not particularly wealthy or well-connected…

Way #2:  Making Them Sing

…unlike the subject of today’s Daily Mail article:

Singer-songwriter and marijuana enthusiast Willie Nelson could have faced a lengthy jail term after he was arrested for possession in November.

But perhaps the Texas prosecutor has been smoking some of Willie’s special cigarettes, because he has agreed to let the 77-year-old legend avoid prison but only if he gives the court a song.

Hudspeth County Attorney Kit Bramblett said: ‘I’m gonna let him plead, pay a small fine and he’s gotta sing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” with his guitar right there in the courtroom.’

In addition to the injustice implicit in the wildly divergent outcome faced by Mr. Nelson, I have the same question for the prosecutor and judge as a commenter over at the ABA Journal website:

Isn’t there some personal benefit in the “command performance”?  Charges should be settled for the state, not the personal benefit of court officers.

Updated 3/30/2011: The Associated Press is now reporting that Willie won’t have to sing after all.  The prosecutor was just “joking”.