Opt in vs. opt out: How recreational marijuana has created dueling grassroots movements

Dueling grass-roots movements of suburban residents are rising up to make their voices heard on the presence of recreational marijuana stores.

Anytime a municipal government takes up the issue - most are doing so before the state's Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act goes into effect Jan. 1 - it's likely to be a long meeting. Speakers in the dozens or hundreds often come out to battle about the merits or pitfalls of marijuana sellers and to persuade elected officials to see it their way.

At issue are the locations of 75 dispensary licenses the state will award by May 1, with more to come later, to sell recreational marijuana to adults 21 and older. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries have first dibs on applying for licenses; everyone else can apply from Dec. 10 to Jan. 2. Municipalities can't outlaw recreational marijuana use or possession, but they can implement zoning regulations for retail operations or ban sales altogether.

An "Opt Out" movement that began in Naperville has spawned similar efforts in several other communities across the North, Northwest and West suburbs, pleading with city councils and village boards to ban the sales of adult-use marijuana within their boundaries.

"We were surprised by how quickly" the movement grew, said Jennifer Bruzan Taylor, leader of Opt Out Naperville, which succeeded in getting the city to enact a ban on recreational marijuana stores - at least until receiving the results of a March 2020 referendum. "I guess people were paying attention."

An "Opt In" movement, though in some cases less overtly organized or connected, is present in many places, too, and just as passionate about its message that recreational marijuana stores should be allowed.

In some towns, the issue is getting political - despite the fact many people's views on pot don't follow the traditional red-or-blue fault lines. There have been rallies and accusations of sign-stealing, even concerns about support from politically backed outside groups.

These political problems have led some to say the divide over marijuana stores is counterproductive. Yet those on either side seem unwilling to stop until their stances are heard and a decision is made.

Here is what members of the opt out and opt in movements say they're fighting for.

Opt Out

At the heart of the opt out effort, supporters say, is a desire to protect children from the potential harms of normalized marijuana use.

  Jennifer Bruzan Taylor of Naperville is part of the grass-roots "Opt Out" movement to encourage municipalities to prohibit recreational marijuana sales. Rick West/

Supporting children is one of the main reasons Bruzan Taylor said she started Opt Out Naperville. And it's the reason Wei Zhang of Northbrook, one of the leaders of Opt Out Northern Suburbs, cites for her efforts.

"When the village and the state say it's OK, it's legal, I don't know how I can educate my children," Zhang said.

Opt Out Northern Suburbs is one of at least seven grass-roots collectives that have launched and built a Facebook presence following the model of the Naperville group. Others have been established in Downers Grove, Lisle, St. Charles, Westchester, Woodridge and downstate in Decatur. All have Facebook pages with an orange circular logo showing "OPT OUT" atop a dividing line and the name of the community below.

Together, opt out supporters, led by some who work as doctors, scientists and researchers, conducted their own study of 3,054 students ages 10 and older in the Naperville area to gauge opinions on recreational sales.

The study found 99% of students said they would not want to allow a recreational marijuana store to open in Naperville, 98% said the presence of such a store would make the community less safe, and 95% said they think recreational sales will encourage underage use.

Opt Out Northern Suburbs and other groups have been using these results, among other statistics, as they make their cases in communities such as Buffalo Grove, Glenview, Lincolnshire, Mundelein, Northbrook, Palatine and Vernon Hills.

So far, results have been mixed, with bans recommended by the plan commission in Glenview and supported by trustees in Lincolnshire, but no decision made in Palatine or Vernon Hills. Mundelein has indicated it plans to set zoning rules to allow sales.

Opt Out members have hosted a rally in Northbrook and sent supporters to pack meetings in Buffalo Grove. But in these towns, they don't feel heard, Zhang said, because both recently voted to allow recreational marijuana sales. "Totally disappointed" is how Opt Out members feel instead, she said.

Yet they plan to keep pushing for other communities to ban pot shops.

"It's about the brand of your village," Buffalo Grove resident Jing Ma said. "It's not just another liquor store."

Opt In

There is less of a Facebook presence - and sometimes less of a physical presence - for "Opt In" leaders, but just as strong a message.

Supporters promote the value of potential tax revenue for municipal projects and point out marijuana use and possession will be legal no matter where the stores set up.

"There is no advantage to opting out," Opt In Naperville leader Jim Haselhorst said.

The group Haselhorst started hasn't formally advocated in other communities, and some towns have heard from many more opt out advocates than they have from those on the other side. But Haselhorst said he reached out to DuPage County before county board members voted to ban recreational marijuana sales in unincorporated areas, and other Opt In members have communicated on their own with counterparts in various towns.

  Lyndsey Kokoris is among Naperville residents who have spoken to the city council urging members to "Opt In" and allow recreational marijuana sales. Patrick Kunzer/

People in favor of recreational marijuana sales say there is a silent segment of the population that is fine with having these new stores in their towns but unwilling to come out to a public meeting to say so.

Naperville resident Jean Page blames this on stigma. Once legal possession and use begin, she said, all that's at stake for adults "is where they purchased the pot."

Municipalities are allowed to impose up to a 3% tax on marijuana sales, and many towns voting to opt in are doing just that. Supporters - including some elected to village boards and city councils - say towns that set zoning rules will have more control over marijuana stores' visibility, or lack thereof.

Those in favor of allowing stores also say state-licensed and -regulated sellers will compete with black-market sellers, potentially decreasing availability on the street. Pot sold in licensed shops also should be safer, without risk of being tainted with other, potentially deadly drugs, supporters say.

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