Politics

In the Weeds

Medical cannabis comes to Commercial Ave.

On a boarded-up window behind wrought iron bars in South Chicago hangs a sign posted by the Bureau of Zoning and Land Use. It reads, “Applicant seeks a special use [sic] to establish a medical cannabis dispensary,” and marks the site of what will likely be the first medical cannabis dispensary on the South Side of Chicago.

The dispensary, helmed by Illinois Grown Medicine (IGM), would be the third to open in Chicago since the Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act went into effect on January 1, 2014. The Act, effective for four years, allows patients diagnosed with any of approximately forty debilitating medical conditions, including spinal cord injuries, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis, to apply for a medical cannabis registry identification card. At present, twenty-nine medical cannabis dispensaries have been licensed. Only two of these dispensaries—Dispensary 33 on the corner of Clark and Argyle and Modern Cannabis in Logan Square—are located within the city limits of Chicago.

The building, located at 8554 S. Commercial Avenue, sits across the street from some firm opposition, in the form of Frank’s Auto Rebuilders Inc., run by brothers Frank and Joe Bustos. Frank Bustos says that the posted sign is hidden from view, and that most people in the neighborhood are not aware of the proposed dispensary. He is concerned about an increase in crime that he speculates the dispensary will bring.

Bustos recalls being the lone voice of opposition on January 11 at a 10th Ward public meeting about the proposed dispensary with the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce and Alderwoman Susan Garza. Garza says that the vast majority of those in attendance at that meeting, as with an earlier meeting on January 6, were in favor of the dispensary as “a way to bring additional jobs and security to the Commercial Avenue shopping district.” Several days later, on January 15, the Zoning Board of Appeals approved plans for the dispensary. If the dispensary is opened, Bustos—a local business owner for over thirty-five years—has said that he will sell his business and leave.

The benefits of making a holistic remedy for debilitating conditions available locally seem indisputable to supporters of the dispensary. To detractors like Bustos, the prospect of a company filling a storefront with cash and cannabis in an area struggling with crime is, at the very least, worthy of suspicion. With national and local legislation on cannabis in flux, and a lack of local precedent, conversation between sides is fraught. The 10th Ward dispensary will open, barring any unforeseen circumstances. But the disjointed debate over the dispensary has left a small, adamantly opposed minority fighting a losing battle.

The opposition, which includes the Bustos brothers, is concerned that the high volume of cannabis and cash on the premises would attract theft and illegal drug trade. Johnny Acoff, a retired police officer who is now the vice president of the South Shore Gardens Betterment Association, shares these concerns. “Some people have money, and some people don’t, and the people who don’t have the money want to get the money,” he says. “That’s my professional opinion from thirty-one years on these streets.”

“It’s the worst thing,” Acoff continues. “It’s just the worst possible thing.”

Garza acknowledges that crime has been a problem in the area for many years and is an ongoing concern to homeowners, but has hopes that private security provided by the dispensary will provide a deterrent. Despite an amendment recently approved by the City Council Finance Committee and soon to be voted on by the full council that would loosen security standards for dispensaries in Illinois, IGM will proceed with its original security plan, which includes round-the-clock on-site security and monitored surveillance of adjacent streets, sidewalks, and alleys.

Along with reduced crime rates, Garza is optimistic that the dispensary will bring a much-needed boost to the local economy. Her office is currently working with IGM on crafting a Memorandum of Understanding concerning hiring from within the 10th Ward. IGM has committed to hiring several individuals from the Ward, using union contractors, and unionizing their shop through United Food and Commercial Workers.

Acoff remains unconvinced. “They say it’s going to bring in businesses,” he says, “but I can’t imagine what businesses it’s going to bring in, except maybe a snack shop.”

Despite comments like these, IGM remains hopeful that it can make a positive impression on the communities of the Hyde Park Township, the area which it aims to serve. Spokesperson Desiree Tate says that as a minority-owned and operated organization, made up mainly of black Chicagoans, IGM is particularly enthusiastic about and well suited to the task of establishing the first dispensary on the South Side.

“We want to be the ones to be able to provide the medicine to this community,” Tate says.

IGM’s previous plans to open a dispensary in the 8th Ward were brought to a halt by vocal community opposition spearheaded by a group called the Eighth Ward Accountability Coalition (EWAC). As in South Chicago, a sign was posted on the building where the dispensary was slated to open. Resident Jerry Brown, who lived across the street from the building, began knocking on doors as soon as he saw the posting. Brown, sixty, an affable, lifelong Chatham resident, sees himself as particularly familiar with the community. As he recalls it, only one person was neutral on the issue of the dispensary, while every other person behind the 102 doors he knocked on was opposed.

A series of community meetings with 8th Ward Alderman Michelle Harris and representatives from both IGM and the Chatham Business Association were populated by crowds of ardently opposed 8th Ward residents, many of whom held signs that read, “We don’t want it.” Harris eventually sided with EWAC and voiced her opposition to the dispensary in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals. IGM withdrew its application for that location on November 20.

Jerry Brown and EWAC rallied opposition around two main points of contention. The first was what Brown called “quality of ownership.” The brother of the director of operations of Harborside, a California-based firm that had partnered with IGM in the 8th Ward venture, had pleaded guilty on August 6, 2001 to a charge of possession of cannabis with intent to distribute. Brown and others in the 8th Ward felt that the involvement of the DeAngelo brothers was worthy of suspicion. “You should hear some of the stuff these guys [the DeAngelo brothers] say. They think that marijuana should be had after dinner, like a glass of wine,” said Brown, shaking his head.

IGM has parted ways with Harborside, rendering this complaint inapplicable to IGM’s plans for the 10th Ward. Desiree Tate says that IGM’s split with Harborside had nothing to do with EWAC’s complaints in the 8th Ward. She says that such accusations are baseless and that the partnership, like many business partnerships, “simply didn’t work out.” IGM now operates with a new consulting partner, the Denver-based dispensary Natural Remedies.

Brown’s second concern was “quality of life,” saying that the dispensary’s location in a commercial strip in the 8th Ward was uncomfortably close to schools, parks, and a popular roller-skating rink. In South Chicago, the Bustos brothers cited similar concerns about the dispensary’s proximity to churches and schools. Alderwoman Garza does not share this apprehension; she argues that the building on Commercial Avenue is far from schools––well beyond the thousand-foot distance required by the Compassionate Use of Cannabis Act––yet still located close enough to mass transit to be accessible to patients. (Neither parks nor churches are mentioned in the restrictions outlined by the Act.)

With only two other dispensaries in Chicago, the ideal location for a dispensary, or whether there is such a thing, is undetermined. Brown has said that he would prefer it if the dispensary were established in an industrial area. According to DNAinfo, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Edward Burke of the 14th Ward proposed an ordinance in 2014 that would have restricted medical cannabis cultivation centers and dispensaries to manufacturing districts within the city limits. The ordinance was rejected in favor of regulations that allowed dispensaries on commercial strips. Brown and Acoff have expressed suspicion about the dispensaries’ location with a shopfront on a commercial strip; Acoff believes that if cannabis were truly intended for medical use, it should be sold across the counter in a drug store.

The variation in legal status of cannabis across the nation further confuses the discussion. Medical cannabis is discussed in the national media as both a legitimate end on its own and as a stepping-stone toward the legalization of recreational marijuana or more relaxed penalties for drug possession and use. Alderman Burke once used Colorado’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana as an example of the possible abuses of medical cannabis law. In the same meeting Alderman Brendan Reilly attempted to distance Illinois from comparisons to Colorado while still advocating for medical cannabis, noting that Illinois law specifically limited medical marijuana to those who were suffering from “horrendous and sometimes terminal diseases.”

The list of approved diseases is another point of contention in Illinois medical cannabis law. On January 29, Rauner’s administration announced their rejection of a proposal that would have added eight new conditions, including autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. The relatively short list of conditions that qualify for medical cannabis has caused some to worry about the economic viability of the dispensaries.

With such back-and-forth over the details of the implementation of the Compassionate Use of Cannabis Act pilot program, it is unclear whether those most affected by the program will be lucky recipients of cutting-edge medical technology or canaries in the coal mine. Some, like those who rallied opposition in the 8th Ward, identify themselves as falling squarely in the latter camp.

“There’s good money, and there’s bad money,” says Brown. He likens the situation to the biblical story in which a town is tormented by demons. Jesus casts the demons into a herd of pigs, and the pigs and the demons run out of town together. The town loses its livelihood, but retains something more important than anything financial security could provide.

“There is just a negativity attached to marijuana,” Brown told the Chicago Citizen this past November.

Others like Bustos and Acoff will likely not be satisfied unless the dispensary, and its inseparable association with marijuana and crime, is excised from their neighborhood like the demons and the pigs.

Tate understands the reaction that the idea of an establishment that sells cannabis can provoke. “A lot of people in our families have been hurt by illegal marijuana,” says Tate. “So it’s been a very difficult decision to make.”

In an interview with the Weekly, Brown said he was hoping to work with a lawyer along with Acoff, the Bustos brothers, and other business owners in the 10th Ward to halt IGM’s plans by filing an injunction. When contacted on February 24, Frank Bustos said he had not heard from Brown since he visited their shop in January. Without an injunction, Desiree Tate predicts that the dispensary will open its doors in June or July.

IGM is currently making efforts to familiarize patients and their surrounding communities with medical cannabis before the dispensary opens. To date, IGM has held six workshops in senior buildings throughout the Hyde Park Township. Tate says that in these workshops, IGM provides information about qualifying conditions, the benefits of medical cannabis, and the registration process. IGM plans to continue holding workshops like these, in senior buildings and other community centers, at least once a month.

“I would hope that those who are opposed to a dispensary would keep an open mind,” Alderwoman Garza writes.

Tate, however, understands that some will remain unconvinced, no matter how many workshops or information sessions are held. “I think they have a misrepresentation of what this really is,” she says. “They are not willing to be educated. They have a preconceived determination of, you know, ‘we don’t want it, we don’t want it, we don’t know why we don’t want it,’” Tate says.

“Some people just aren’t willing to learn about it. We understand that.”

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