Wheaton plans to ban recreational pot sales, citing 'unknowns' of legalization

In many ways, the resistance to recreational marijuana sales in Wheaton hearkens back to its history as a dry city.

Voters didn't overturn the city's 50-year ban on alcohol sales until 1985. Opponents feared the end of prohibition would diminish Wheaton's conservative, religious reputation.

And when it comes to marijuana legalization, Wheaton officials aren't riding a wave of change, either. The city council likely will vote to ban recreational sales as early as the first week in October.

"I just don't see an advantage to being a first mover on this," Mayor Phil Suess said. "And a very practical consideration: We say yes to this, the next discussion is where does it go? And I'm pretty sure we're going to have a pretty profound discussion if we went that way in the context of 'not in my backyard.'"

Some council members also prefer to take that wait-and-see approach, indicating they could revisit public health and safety questions once the market establishes itself in towns that are now planning to allow dispensaries.

"If we opt out now, we have the ability at any point to opt back in after time has passed and seeing OK, what has Lombard done?" Councilman Christopher Zaruba said.

It would be a long wait if officials followed the recommendation of Mark Taylor, the chairman of the city's liquor control commission.

"We don't need to be an early adopter. We weren't an early adopter for liquor," he said. "... I think that we would do well to wait five years, 10 years and see what happens to other communities that do allow for the sale of cannabis products."

The state will issue up to 75 retail dispensary licenses before May 1. Existing medical cannabis dispensaries can get a head start with early approval licenses to either sell recreational marijuana on site or at a different location. Up to 110 licenses will be available by December 2021.

"There's a lot of uncertainty for a lot of different reasons," Councilwoman Erica Bray-Parker said. "I do believe the state laid down a very solid plan for regulation and for revenue of this for adult-use cannabis. I also think it's an evolving issue. This is cannabis use 2019. This isn't cannabis use 1984. I think it's definitely evolved in a positive way."

But without a firm grasp on revenue projections and the implications for law enforcement, Bray-Parker said resident feedback also has her leaning toward opting out.

Other council members expressed skepticism that Wheaton would miss out on a potential "gold rush" with the ban, noting that black markets have undercut the legal pot trade in other states.

"People will prefer to buy their marijuana illegally to avoid the high costs due to taxes and regulation," Councilwoman Suzanne Fitch said.

Municipalities in Illinois can place local sales taxes of up to 3% on recreational marijuana sales.

"I would not be surprised if the 3% tax eventually gets diverted to the state as the state looks for more revenue to balance its budget," Fitch said.

During the city council meeting Monday, nearly 20 speakers offered more of a debate on marijuana legalization, many of whom were split along generational lines and offered conflicting data from studies on the drug and teen use.

"I believe that the ability for lawful businesses to dispense marijuana and the fact that Wheaton is a family town are not mutually exclusive," resident Elizabeth Hain said. "We can have both of those things. What it will do is allow businesses to regulate and safely and responsibly dispense, while creating a revenue stream that funds our families' parks and our families' programs and takes some of the burden off our taxpayers."

Medical marijuana dispensaries, meanwhile, have been allowed under city zoning rules since 2013, but there aren't any in town, Planning and Economic Development Director Jim Kozik said.

The draft ordinance on a ban on recreational marijuana businesses is set for a first reading at city hall Monday, Sept. 16. The council could then issue a final vote at its first meeting in October.

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