St. Charles begins talks on recreational marijuana sales

The legalization of recreational marijuana in Illinois has prompted St. Charles officials to begin considering whether it should be sold within city limits.

Under the new statewide law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, residents 21 and older can possess up to 30 grams of the cannabis flower, 5 grams of cannabis concentrate, and 500 milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

Municipalities have no control over limiting recreational use in their towns, but they do have options for regulating the zoning of dispensaries and lounges, city attorney John McGuirk said Monday. Officials can decide when, where and how many are allowed to operate, he said, or they can choose to ban sales altogether.

It'll soon be up to aldermen to determine which direction to take St. Charles.

In the first of at least two community discussions planned this month, department leaders said the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act will affect the city's policies and resources either way. Among the factors to consider: the potential health and safety risks, enforcement issues, monetary benefits and the possible impact on an existing medical marijuana dispensary.

"I don't want our citizenry to think ... the use of recreational marijuana won't exist in our community in January, because it will," Mayor Ray Rogina said. "We have to deal with the law whether we pass (a measure allowing sales) or not pass it."

Public safety

In 2018, St. Charles received two confirmed emergency calls for marijuana toxicity, and 12 unspecified calls that may have been related, Fire Chief Joe Schelstreet said. When recreational cannabis use becomes legal, the city estimates those ambulance requests might double - a "blip" in the fire department's total operations, he said.

The greater burden will fall on law enforcement officers, who have to change the way they handle marijuana-related cases regardless of whether sales are permitted in the city, police Chief James Keegan said. New state rules apply to underage use, location limitations, possession in vehicles and production.

Additionally, he said, the department will have to undergo the "labor intensive" process of expunging certain criminal records pertaining to cannabis.

But the biggest concern among officers is dealing with impaired drivers and the unknowns of how certain cannabis products affect them, Keegan said. And there's no effective roadside field sobriety and chemical testing available yet.

"I think the technology will catch up," he said, "but right now, it's not there."

As discussions continue over whether to authorize sales, Keegan encouraged aldermen to "hit the pause button" before greenlighting a lounge or cafe where customers could consume cannabis on site and then get behind the wheel.

The new state law does create a task force to examine the issue of driving under the influence and the best practices for enforcement.

Economic impact

To help offset the costs associated with legalizing marijuana, municipalities could receive a portion of the state's tax and fee revenues, Finance Director Chris Minick said. Those that allow cannabis sales can add a tax of up to 3%, plus any other local sales taxes.

For St. Charles, that would bring the sales tax on recreational marijuana to 5%, meaning the city would receive $50,000 for every $1 million in cannabis sold. It's difficult to estimate the amount of business a local dispensary would generate, Minick said.

The community members who addressed aldermen Monday were divided on whether the city should allow recreational sales. Some were concerned about health and safety risks, but others argued marijuana is less harmful than other substances, including alcohol, and could bring the city revenue.

Also a concern is how an existing medical marijuana dispensary could be affected by the city's decision, some residents said.

St. Charles is one of several suburbs debating the issue. So far, only South Elgin and Elburn said they are OK with allowing one marijuana retail store.

The conversation is expected to continue Aug. 19 at the government operations committee meeting after the 7 p.m. city council meeting at 2 E. Main St.

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