Dueling groups weigh in as Naperville pot sales referendum nears

  • The question of whether to allow the sale of recreational cannabis in Naperville has drawn large crowds to city hall and intense communitywide interest. Voters will have their say March 17 as part of an advisory referendum question on the matter.

      The question of whether to allow the sale of recreational cannabis in Naperville has drawn large crowds to city hall and intense communitywide interest. Voters will have their say March 17 as part of an advisory referendum question on the matter. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/7/2020 5:32 PM

Naperville voters will weigh in March 17 about whether their city should allow sales of recreational cannabis, and plenty of people and groups care what they think.

The referendum on the primary election ballot is nonbinding, meaning the vote neither would uphold the city's ban on recreational cannabis sales, nor overturn it. To allow sales if voters so desire, the city council would have to act and set zoning parameters.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The vote is a hot topic despite its advisory nature. Two political action committees, two grass-roots groups, several elected officials and a business that's part of a larger cannabis chain all are trying to sway opinion.

At least $55,000 has been poured into the PACs running information campaigns, including donations from Chicago, Aurora and Virginia. Mailers have been sent, websites have been posted and forums have been held.

The facts? Depends who you ask. So, too, is the explanation of what's at stake.

But the question on the ballot will ask this: "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?"

Money

For some, the answer comes down to money and how much the city could reap in taxes if it allows a cannabis store or stores to sell to the general public instead of only to patients who qualify through the state's medical marijuana program. One dispensary in Naperville -- 3C Compassionate Care Center, which is part of the cannabis company Green Thumb Industries -- has been selling medical cannabis since 2016.

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Annual tax revenue estimates from recreational sales range from $133,000 to $500,000 per store, with supporters suggesting the higher figure and opponents, who are part of Opt Out Naperville, a grass-roots group that also has formed a PAC, providing the low-end estimate.

The city has not compiled an official revenue estimate, and Naperville for Legal Cannabis PAC, which was formed by Green Thumb Industries, does not break down its revenue estimate by store.

The Chicago-based group, instead, estimates the market for recreational cannabis in the Naperville area would be $40 million a year, based on its own proprietary projections and outside analysis that estimates the statewide market could total between $1.6 billion and $4 billion a year. The PAC estimates a $40 million Naperville-area market would result in a total of $1.9 million in tax revenue for municipalities in which the stores to serve that demand are located.

Opt Out Naperville leader Jennifer Bruzan Taylor, who provided the $133,000-per-store estimate based on six years of sales data from Colorado, said the money doesn't match the societal cost.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Everybody is talking about the benefits, but not the costs that go with this," she said.

City council members Patty Gustin and Kevin Coyne point to potential increased teenage use of marijuana as one cost, but others cite studies saying that won't happen under a law that allows use only by people 21 and older.

Gustin and Coyne also point to a study that found Colorado spends more to offset the effects of marijuana legalization than it gains in taxes, but others say that's not relevant because Illinois' taxation plan is structured differently.

Another city council member, Paul Hinterlong, is casting doubt on all financial projections, saying it's too soon to tell based on two months of sales in Illinois. He had pushed for the referendum to take place at the general election in November.

"Right now, all we're looking at is the initial surges. It's all going to flatten out," Hinterlong said about figures that showed $74 million in total cannabis sales in January and February. "I don't know if you can go by any numbers or question any numbers at this point."

Supporters of cannabis sales say it's not smart pass up any potential tax revenue from a product people clearly want.

"The market is going to exist. People are going to purchase these products," said Patrick Skarr, a spokesman for Green Thumb Industries and Naperville for Legal Cannabis PAC. "It's a question of if Naperville will benefit from it."

Image

For some, the question is about community image, and whether cannabis sales fits with Naperville's reputation.

"We are a kid-friendly, family-focused, education-driven, safe community. Really, that is what draws people to our community. That is what people stay here for," Gustin said. "It's important to retain that desirability."

Reputations and community norms can change, said council member Judith Brodhead, who supports adult-use cannabis sales. She said the 3C medical dispensary hasn't posed any issues in more than three years, and the statewide medical program has changed perceptions.

"Ten years ago, 15 years ago, that would have been hard to imagine that a community like Naperville would have accepted even medical-use marijuana, but it has become part of our culture now," Brodhead said. "I believe a facility that is run the same way for adult use would operate as smoothly as our current medical marijuana facility."

Decision

Aside from money and culture, the decision of whether to allow recreational sales could hinge on any number of factors: the risk of crime, or lack thereof; the potential of more teen use, or lack thereof; the possibility of more people driving impaired, or lack thereof; even the smell.

Jim Haselhorst, leader of the grass-roots group Opt In Naperville, said many of these issues actually arise from legal cannabis use throughout the state, not from the presence or absence of stores in a particular town. He said a stigma remains against cannabis use, despite its legalization.

"Trying to make dispensaries the scapegoat isn't the solution," said Haselhorst, whose Opt In group does not have a PAC and is not affiliated with Naperville for Legal Cannabis PAC. "It isn't going to solve anything."

Dina Rollman, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Green Thumb Industries, who is chairwoman and treasurer of Naperville for Legal Cannabis PAC, said the industry in Illinois has operated responsibly since Jan. 1. She said there has been an "absence of the horror stories that many opponents to legalization predicted," and safe, lawful operations would continue in Naperville.

"All that would change," Rollman said, "is the customer base that we could serve."

Naperville is an outlier among suburban communities in putting the question to voters. The city councils or village boards in most communities have made the decision, and there is no consensus. Among 89 of the communities in the Northwest and West suburbs, 43 have allowed sales and 46 have enacted bans or moratoriums.

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