Naperville chooses March primary for recreational marijuana referendum

Naperville voters can expect a referendum about whether they want the city to allow recreational marijuana sales within its borders on the March 17 primary ballot.

City council members voted 5-4 to place the referendum on the soonest upcoming ballot instead of waiting until the Nov. 3, 2020, general election or the next local election in April 2021. The decision follows a move the council made last month to prohibit recreational marijuana stores in town, even though marijuana possession and use by people 21 and older will be legal come Jan. 1 under the state's Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act.

"Anyone who cares about this has total access to the polls," said council member Theresa Sullivan, who supported the March referendum date. "It give us a tool to know what Naperville wants."

Council members also voted, by a 7-2 tally, to keep the wording of the referendum question the same as the language proposed by City Attorney Mike DiSanto. The question will ask:

"Shall the city of Naperville, in light of state legislation legalizing the possession, consumption, and sale of recreational adult use cannabis, allow the sale of recreational adult use cannabis within its jurisdiction?"

The referendum will be nonbinding and will be available on Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan ballots.

Several city council members said they will trust the will of the voters. That means if voters say they do not want recreational cannabis sales, no council action will be necessary. But if voters say they want to allow such stores, the council would need to reverse its ban and set zoning regulations.

Debate about when to ask voters centered on several opposing ideas.

Some said they wanted to settle the divisive issue as soon as possible, while others were in favor of solving it later with as much data as possible about marijuana sales in other communities.

"We are Naperville. We take our time," Mary Lou Wehrli said, pushing an April 2021 ballot question. "You can make your choice based on Naperville and our community, not on partisan politics. Keep it simple. Keep it local."

Some wanted to ensure ample time and opportunity for state licensing of a potential business should voters OK recreational marijuana sales. That might not be possible a year from now, they said.

"Let the voters decide - and sooner rather than later," Dianne McGuire said. "Waiting until November for a vote would effectively rule out the possibility of moving forward if the vote is affirmative, thus completely negating the voice of the people."

Others thought it was most important to maximize voter turnout by asking the question to coincide with a presidential election.

"If your objective is to hear from the residents of the city in the most significant way that you can, I think it's most beneficial to wait until November," Kathy Benson said.

City council members Kevin Coyne, Patty Gustin and Paul Hinterlong voted against the March referendum date and in favor of November, along with Mayor Steve Chirico.

Coyne and Gustin also opposed the referendum wording, preferring instead a shorter version proposed by Gustin that did not reference the state legislation.

  Paul Leong of Naperville and many members of the Opt Out Naperville group sought a November 3, 2020 ballot placement for a referendum question asking whether Naperville residents want the city to allow recreational marijuana sales within its jurisdiction. The city council instead voted to ask the question on the March 17 primary ballot. Patrick Kunzer/
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