Suburban voters saying yes to marijuana sales, but some concerns persist
Voter approval of recreational marijuana sales in the suburbs this year is a sign that public acceptance of the long-illegal substance has turned a corner, industry experts and some elected officials say.
Though tallies remain unofficial, voters in Elk Grove Village, Mount Prospect, Glen Ellyn, Park Ridge, Batavia and Wilmette all appear to have said yes Nov. 3 in advisory referendums asking if their towns should allow the sale of recreational pot.
Only voters in West suburban Willow Springs rejected marijuana sales in this month's election, while similar ballot questions in March won approval in Naperville, Rosemont and Maple Park.
Those results echo a national trend, as voters in Arizona, Montana and New Jersey all passed measures Nov. 3 legalizing cannabis for recreational use, South Dakota voters legalized both medical and recreational marijuana, and Mississippi residents voted to legalize medical marijuana. No statewide marijuana measure failed.
Jason Erkes, chief communications officer for Cresco Labs that operates nine Sunnyside dispensaries in Illinois, said he believes the first 10 months of legalized recreational marijuana in Illinois have given people confidence in the professionalism of dispensaries.
"We're at least as highly regulated, if not more highly regulated, than a pharmacy," he said.
But there remain critics who maintain not every community is a good fit for a retail dispensary.
"I really don't care if someone smokes pot," said Pete Ladesic, who co-founded the group Opt Out Glen Ellyn to oppose recreational marijuana sales in his village. "Our position is Glen Ellyn is not a good location."
Illinois on Jan. 1 became the first state to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana to adults through legislation rather than by referendum. But under the state law, towns have the right to prevent sales within their borders.
Mount Prospect was among the suburbs to ban sales last year. But Mayor Arlene Juracek said the support for sales among two-thirds of her village's voters this month confirmed her opinion of how people feel about marijuana.
The "yes" votes likely came from people who either use marijuana already or have heard about the revenues dispensaries can generate for communities, Juracek said. With marijuana use so prevalent, eliminating the black market seems to be the major goal, she said.
Like the other pot referendums on the Nov. 3 ballot, Mount Prospect's measure was nonbinding. So now it will be up to the village board to decide whether to reverse the suburb's ban.
Pamela Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, said the state's fledgling marijuana industry is dedicated to being good neighbors, living up to its promises and educating the public during this cultural shift.
Among the other reasons voters are backing pot sales, Althoff suggested, are the jobs the industry is creating in the midst of this year's economic downturn.
The association and its members agree with the state's decision allowing individual communities to decide whether to permit marijuana businesses within their borders, she said.
"The industry recognized the importance of that provision and supports it," said Althoff, a former state senator from McHenry.
Ladesic, a former Glen Ellyn village trustee who intends to run for village president in the spring, said that despite the preliminary election results, there remains a lack of suitable sites in town far enough from day care centers and schools. That may ultimately keep pot sales out of town, he said.
Based on his 20 years of experience as a police officer, Ladesic said he supports reducing the criminality of marijuana use but is concerned about impaired driving and other problems that might arise.
Elk Grove Mayor Craig Johnson said one of the reasons he wanted voter input was to gauge whether the community believes legal marijuana sales would be seen as contradictory to the mission of Elk Grove Village Cares, a village program that helps arrange treatment for those battling substance addiction.
Voters in Elk Grove backed recreational pot sales in the village by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, unofficial results show. The village board will discuss those results at upcoming meetings and decide what to do next.
With Oregon voters passing a measure this month to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines, Johnson fears that may be the start of a new trend.
And while he still harbors a dilemma about marijuana dispensaries in town, Johnson said the public response to the advisory referendum was "loud and clear."