Naperville votes to 'protect the brand,' banning recreational pot sales

Stores selling recreational marijuana will not be permitted to open in Naperville, city council members decided in a split vote, saying they want to protect their family-friendly brand and await data on how adult use affects communities.

"We have a great community here and we need to keep the protection of it paramount," council member Kevin Coyne said.

The move makes Naperville among the first suburban communities to ban sales of the drug, which will be legal for adult possession and private use across the state beginning Jan. 1 under the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act.

Council member Patty Gustin on Tuesday sent an email to contacts encouraging them to speak out and said she fears the costs of increased addiction as well as the potential for "big marijuana" to profit from legal sales.

Prohibiting sales, she said, will safeguard Naperville's families, and losing potential tax revenue won't hurt the city's bottom line.

"The true cost is not opting out and sitting on our hands until this is forced upon us," she said during more than two hours of debate on the topic Tuesday night. "There's no dollar amount worth selling out our kids."

Several drug prevention advocates shared studies with the council about effects on teen brain development and the potential for increased use or decreased perception of risk. But many members remained unconvinced of the validity of the research, pointing out it's difficult to scientifically study marijuana because of regulations placed on the drug - a federally illegal Schedule 1 substance.

Naperville is home to one medical marijuana dispensary, 3C Compassionate Care Center, which has been in operation since early 2016 in an industrial area on Quincy Avenue. The operator of that dispensary, Green Thumb Industries, sought to open a recreational arm for the business, and another dispensary chain with several locations in Illinois, Grassroots Cannabis, also petitioned to set up a recreational shop.

But council members doubted the financial windfall the sales could bring. Municipalities are allowed to place local sales taxes of up to 3% on recreational marijuana sales. But at that rate, selling $1 million worth of the drug would generate only $30,000 in increased revenue.

Council member Theresa Sullivan said that in the absence of reliable study data either way, the decision was an economic one for her. And the value of Naperville's image as a hub for families won out.

"It's an economic engine for us to keep that brand where it is," Sullivan said. "I want to protect the brand, and I just don't see that selling marijuana is going to do anything for our brand."

Members voting in the minority against prohibiting recreational sales, however, said the business would not detract from Naperville's reputation.

"We're afraid of something that will not happen," council member Judith Brodhead said. "I don't think it will hurt our brand one bit. No one is not going to move to Naperville because there happens to be one or two dispensaries in town."

Brodhead joined council members Benny White and John Krummen and Mayor Steve Chirico in voting against the ban. Chirico said he knows a societal cost will come with legal adult use of cannabis, but he also knows the substance already is in use.

"Given the cost we'll experience either way, why not have the tax revenues to help offset it?" Chirico said.

Some council members who voted to ban recreational sales advocated for the city to continue researching use rates and effects of the new industry before potentially revisiting the decision later.

Council member Patrick Kelly called this an "opt out and find out" approach. Council member Paul Hinterlong agreed, saying it's best not to be among the first to allow recreational sales as the market tests itself out and enforcement begins.

"I think it's going to be a learning curve for everyone," Hinterlong said. "I don't think we should be that learning curve."

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