Naperville voters say 'yes' to pot sales, but debate continues

  • Voters in Naperville said "yes" to recreational marijuana sales in an advisory question on Tuesday's primary ballot. Now it's up to the city council to consider overturning a ban set in September and creating zoning rules to allow sales.

      Voters in Naperville said "yes" to recreational marijuana sales in an advisory question on Tuesday's primary ballot. Now it's up to the city council to consider overturning a ban set in September and creating zoning rules to allow sales. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/18/2020 6:26 PM

Opponents of legalized recreational cannabis sales in Naperville already are calling for a new referendum question in November after a majority of voters on Tuesday supported such sales.

Officials say 28,968 people cast ballots for Tuesday's advisory referendum and 15,426 -- or 53.25% -- supported cannabis sales compared to 13,542 who opposed them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But opponents say those results are flawed because concerns about the new coronavirus may have kept some voters from the polls.

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico, a supporter of recreational cannabis sales, said he has commitments from six city council members to follow the will of the voters who weighed in on Tuesday's question and turn the advisory guidance into local law.

"I'm highly confident that they will," Chirico said.

To follow the recommendation from voters, the council could overturn a ban on recreational marijuana sales enacted in September, then set zoning parameters for shops, governing issues such as the number, location and hours of stores. The council also could move to tax any marijuana products sold for nonmedical use at a rate of up to 3%.

"I don't think anybody will object to taxing it if it's going to be here," Chirico said.

The council could schedule a meeting to discuss taxation as soon as Monday, which would be in advance of a state deadline of April 1 to file necessary paperwork to begin taxing sales as soon as July 1.

While supporters would be happy to move forward, opponents are questioning the vote on a few fronts, mainly related to the coronavirus outbreak.

DuPage County moved 14 polling places away from senior living facilities, and federal officials have recommended against gatherings of more than 10 people -- all in an effort to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.

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Jennifer Bruzan Taylor, leader of Opt Out Naperville, a group that formed to oppose pot sales, said such measures prevented many nursing home residents from voting and discouraged others who are at risk of contracting more severe cases of the virus from casting ballots.

"Unfortunately, this is not the most accurate vote," Bruzan Taylor said. "This wasn't, for either side, the most representative." Opt Out Naperville pushed for the referendum to be placed on the Nov. 3 ballot in the first place, and now Patty Gustin, a city council member who opposes recreational marijuana sales, said she will push for that idea again.

But that's not how it's supposed to work with referendum questions, said Patrick Skarr, spokesman for Naperville For Legal Cannabis PAC, which formed to support sales expansion.

"Just because you don't like the results, doesn't mean you get to call for a do-over," Skarr said. "After weighing the facts, the voters spoke and they want safe, legal access to adult-use cannabis."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The question on Tuesday drew a high number of participants when compared with Naperville races in the past.

The 28,968 votes cast on both sides were more than 10,000 more than the 18,674 total votes cast in the Naperville mayoral race last spring, a tightly fought contest between Chirico and challenger Richard "Rocky" Caylor.

Chirico and leaders of Green Thumb Industries, which runs the 3C Compassionate Care Center medical marijuana shop in Naperville, said the question drew the third-highest number of voters in any Naperville referendum since 2001, topped by questions in 2010 about whether to create city council wards and whether to impose term limits.

"It would be a very difficult argument to make to say people weren't given the opportunity to vote or didn't vote," Chirico said.

Instead, the 6.5-percentage-point victory margin is what supporters of adult-use cannabis sales call a clear indication that voters want such commerce to take place.

"A majority of the council has committed to supporting the judgment of the voters, and it's clear Naperville residents want safe, legal access to adult-use cannabis at a local dispensary," Dina Rollman, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Green Thumb Industries said in a written statement. "We look forward to working with the community on implementing a responsible opt-in ordinance in the weeks and months ahead."

Chirico said gaining taxation authority will be the first step toward codifying permission for sales. Steps then would include hearings before the planning and zoning commission and potential ordinance approval.

During the period of social distancing because of the new coronavirus, Chirico said, the city will encourage use of technology to facilitate public participation in meetings and will find new physical separation protocols to make in-person participation safe as well.

Bruzan Taylor, though, said now is not the time to rush.

"I don't think the city council could even have a vote in the near future on this issue to be fair to both sides," she said. "If there is a rush to push this through, it's going to be very suspicious."

Naperville is an outlier among communities in putting this issue to voters.

After the state last spring approved the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, the city councils or village boards in most communities made their own decisions about local sales. 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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