Kane County panel gives recreational pot sales a yes vote, but it's not a done deal

Despite confusion about the full implications of their decisions and even the correct process to follow, Kane County officials this week inched toward allowing recreational marijuana businesses in unincorporated areas.

They also signaled a preference for charging the maximum tax allowable on recreational sales that happen throughout the county. That would include in towns like Aurora and St. Charles, where officials are still debating what to do with recreational marijuana sales in their communities.

Meanwhile, the county's public health department is gearing up for an educational campaign directed at the possible negative impacts of recreational marijuana use among local youths.

Illinois law will allow legal sale of recreational marijuana throughout Illinois starting in January. Kane County is one of many layers of local government trying to prepare for any negative effects while also trying to scoop up any new tax dollars.

The county board's development committee voted 5-4 to keep recreational sales legal in the unincorporated areas. Several board members thought that decided the issue, but the county staff later informed them that the full, 24-member county board must have a say before the decision is final.

If the full board follows the committee's lead, officials will have the power to place a 3.75% tax on recreational sales that occur in unincorporated areas.

Even if the county opts out of recreational sales, officials can still impose a tax of up to 3% on any sales in incorporated municipalities. Politically, that would allow county officials morally opposed to marijuana use to vote against unincorporated sales and still get a taste of any profits to use as the county deems fit.

But it would also limit the total potential new revenue to the county at a time when the county faces a multimillion-dollar budget deficit next year.

Part of the equation is the unknown costs to the sheriff's office, county jail and public health department. Those departments have not put together any projections of new costs, or savings, that might result from recreational use.

County board member Cliff Surges issued a call Wednesday for more information before any final decisions occur.

"I feel very uninformed," Surges said. "There are moral issues, but we are here at the county to look at the finances, too. We can't bury our heads in the sand. There are going to be financial impacts. How do we even begin putting the line items together to say this is going to be the impact to the sheriff's office, to the judiciary? I don't understand it. I have nothing to look at."

Barb Jeffers, the executive director of the Kane County Public Health Department, said communities with legal recreational use generally see increases in vehicle accidents and emergency room visits. And she's concerned about the impact on the mental health of young people who feel emboldened to try or increase the use of marijuana because it will be legal.

She proposed a public information campaign about the dangers. County board member Jarett Sanchez challenged her to balance out such a campaign with information about the possible benefits of marijuana.

"There are a lot of medical uses for it, and it is not highly addictive," Sanchez said. "I was a teenager who did use cannabis. I don't think teens should be using it. But we were told so many things about how it's so bad and it's so wrong and it's a gateway drug that turned out to not be true."

Jeffers said she has a heightened concern about the mental health effects given a recent announcement by officials at Amita Health St. Joseph Hospital in Elgin that they will close the underused mental health unit. Jeffers said she's appealed to Amita to keep the unit open because there are waitlists at every other mental health service provider in the county.

"If you don't have a 708 (mental health) board, and you don't have a mental health hospital in this community, the impact could be devastating," Jeffers said.

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