Medical Marijuana Dispensary Tentatively Approved

Friday’s Zoning Board of Appeals hearing was an interesting lesson in Chicago politics. Despite a well-reasoned, thoughtful, thorough presentation by Bob Kingsley and his attorney, Thomas Moore, the Zoning Board of Appeals gave only tentative approval for the opening of the Green Gate Compassion Center at 6501 North Western Avenue, next door to Warren Park. For awhile, it appeared that the Board would defer to Ald. Silverstein and a well-rehearsed if bewildered supporting cast of wide-eyed children and deny Mr. Kingsley’s application.

If supporters do not continue to press for approval, that is exactly what will happen. The vote is currently 2 in favor, 1 (plus the alderman) opposed. Only one other member of the ZBA is scheduled to review the transcript and exhibits. If that person votes against, the score will be 2-2. Does that mean another hearing packed with kids?

There were three applications for medical marijuana dispensaries before the Board, the 50th Ward’s being last on the agenda. What happened with the first two was a clear indication of how things are done in this City. It’s well-known that aldermen control zoning in their wards, and that it’s next to impossible to obtain a zoning change if the alderman is opposed. Just ask Zehra Quadri.

First-term Alderman Napolitano of the 41st Ward, to the surprise of the attorney representing the MMD applicant for his ward, Union Group of Illinois, asked for and was granted a continuance because the alderman felt he hadn’t yet gauged the sense of the community on the issue, despite a continuance on this matter from May and an entire summer in which he could have done so. Is public support running against the alderman? He didn’t say. Although the attorney protested that Union Group had been given no notice that the alderman would be seeking a continuance, and had flown in witnesses to testify before the ZBA, and was fully ready to present its case, the Board ruled for the alderman.

Next up was Harborside Illinois Grown Medicine, which sought approval to operate in the 8th Ward. The City Council chamber was packed with over 100 residents from the 8th Ward, the majority carrying commercially-produced signs in opposition. A hand-count by the ZBA toted up 35 residents in support, and 65-70 opposed. Despite a forceful statement by an 8th Ward resident and attorney in support of the proposal, the case was continued until November 20. One of the concerns raised by opponents was the alleged criminal background of the applicant. Another was the fact that the community felt the dispensary applicant had not appeared at community meetings to discuss the proposed business.  The Board’s chairman, Jonathan Swain, speaking to the attorney, noted that, “at the May hearing, you didn’t have any opposition. Now you do.” The alderman for that ward said she’d listen to the community. Case continued.

The 50th Ward was next. All objectors were asked to move to the right side of the room to prepare for testimony; the five adults and 7-8 children did so.

The kids had moved to seats behind me while we waited for the session to start. Only the oldest boy—about 10—could read well enough to find the 50th Ward hearing on the agenda. I turned around asked the kids why they were there. They said their uncle brought them. I asked if they opposed or supported the dispensary. They were firmly opposed, but didn’t know why. The oldest boy offered that “they want to put a drug store in my park.” The kids then went for their uncle. He had been at the May meeting, was warmly greeted at that time by the alderman, but would not speak with me. This time, he told me that he fears for his children if the dispensary is permitted.

He had no qualms, however, about using his children as stage props, rehearsing and coaching them to speak on adult matters they couldn’t possibly understand. Indeed, except for the oldest boy, they were there simply to represent the loss of innocence that their families are sure will occur should medical marijuana be sold in a safe and secure building alongside the park. The families did not express any fears or knowledge of the illicit drugs presently available in that same park or, indeed, throughout the 50th Ward.

Swain began by noting that the City’s Department of Planning had recommended approval of Mr. Kingsley’s application. The alderman was invited to speak her piece, and she said that the application was “somewhat controversial,” that calls and emails to her office indicated that residents were “equally divided” pro and con, with very strong opinions on both sides. Then it was Mr. Kingsley’s turn to present his case for approval.

He and Mr. Moore presented their plans for the site via slide show, with two of the three ZBA members asking questions at every step. Mr. Kingsley and his attorney were well-prepared with answers, stressing the usual points:

Nothing would indicate that the building is a medical marijuana dispensary. No signage would say anything other than the dispensary name, Green Gate Compassion Center.

  • Vehicle entry is through a boom arm, exactly the same as what’s used at parking facilities and banks around the country.
  • Admission to the building itself will be controlled by an armed security guard, who will permit only patients and a parent or parents (in the case of a pediatric patient) into the facility. Admission is by fingerprint ID only. Patients must also have the State-issued MMD card and a valid prescription written by an Illinois doctor.
  • The MMJ is in locked cases, and stored in a vault at night.
  • Trucks delivering MMJ would do so via a locked and fully-secured sally port required by the City.
  • Staff will be searched by guards when leaving for the day to ensure that no inventory leaves with them.
  • Thillens has agreed to handle the dispensary’s cash. It will be recorded in such a way that it becomes Thillens’ property on intake.
  • Kingsley is currently in discussions with Millenium Bank in Palatine and First National Bank in Springfield to handle noncash transactions. Currently, Federal banks will not accept deposits from MMDs.
  • Kingsley is working on setting up a debit card arrangementt for his patients.

Both the head of security and the designer of the dispensary’s security systems spoke about the extensive attention paid to safeguard patients and inventory, which will be counted every day and secured in a vault every night.

The opponents were next. The first three spoke in Spanish, with translation provided by the Board.

Two of the speakers were related to the children now sitting behind them. They insisted that the MMD would imperil their children, that just walking past it on their way to the park would endanger the kids. They kept repeating that kids are curious, that they would want to know what the building is and what the people going inside were doing there. They are convinced that patients will go directly into the park and smoke marijuana, and would toss the roach butts on the ground for the curious children to pick up. One speaker said she supports medical marijuana but doesn’t want the dispensary near the park. The children’s uncle wanted to know if anybody would want an MMD next to their home. He claimed that the MMD should not be a business decision but a decision about children and their future.

The oldest boy, later in the hearing, after visibly being coached by his family, broke into the pro-dispensary testimony to beg the Board not to approve the MMD, claiming that he is “scared of strangers and scared to say no” if patients try to force him to take marijuana. He backed up his uncle’s claim that he would be afraid to walk to the park past the MMD in case patients tried to force their marijuana on him. Not surprisingly, the alderman chimed in to say that it occurred to her that many parents would stop bringing their children to the park if the dispensary were approved.  Both claims are preposterous.

Annie Sindlear, a resident whose children accompanied her to the hearing, pointed out that all the security at Green Gate couldn’t help but make the park safer, and that she had no fears for her children.

Another issue raised by opponents and the alderman is that there are three playgrounds in the park that might be harmed by the presence of the dispensary. Supporters noted that two of the three playgrounds are on the north end of the park, at Pratt, and the third is far enough north of the dispensary and east of Western that no possible harm could be inflicted by the presence of the MMD. [The MMD would be closer to Arthur & Western, with the Pratt playgrounds more than two blocks north.] Indeed, opponents were unable to demonstrate any way in which the dispensary could harm children or adults.

Another speaker expressed concern for seniors, saying that increased traffic brought to the park by the dispensary would endanger seniors crossing the street. Speaking as a senior myself, I must say that we have a lifetime of experience crossing the street, are usually more careful than younger people who tend to dart into traffic, and are quite apable of managing to cross busy streets.

One neighborhood resident claimed that the MMD would be in an “isolated” area with lots of trees and bushes where unsuspecting patients would be ambushed by thugs for their cash on the way into the dispensary, and their medical marijuana on the way out. She claimed that there is little pedestrian traffic around the proposed site of the MMD. This claim makes no sense whatever. Opponents can’t have it both ways. If there’s no foot traffic, how are people, including children, getting into the park? Does everybody enter at Pratt? If so, then what’s the problem? They won’t be passing the dispensary building anyway.

The truth is that anyone can buy pot in Warren Park right now, along with a wide variety of other drugs.  I’ve noticed that the police have recently made arrests involving heroin, and that’s of far more concern than the sale of marijuana for medical purposes. Maybe the alderman’s next multijurisdictional task force can target the park and get rid of the illicit drugs sold where children play.

Speaking in support, Peter Sifnotis, Executive Director of POWR (People of West Ridge), made a case for the economic development the MMD would bring, stressing Mr. Kingsley’s commitment to hiring veterans and the disabled from the two wards in his licensed district (the 49th and 50th). He briefly reviewed the reasons for the legalization of medical marijuana in Illinois, and noted its success in treating a wide variety of diseases. Sifnotis also presented the Board with a petition signed by more than 155 neighborhood residents in support of the MMD.

The Epilepsy Foundation of Chicago submitted a letter in support of the dispensary, and its representative briefly spoke of its benefits for patients.

As one neighborhood resident, Paul, said to me after the meeting, “It’s not always all about the children. Some things are for adults.”

It’s unclear why the alderman is so determined to block this initiative. She claims to support the use of medical marijuana, yet manufactured a concern about children playing in the park in an effort to prevent the dispensary from opening. She has enlisted he support of well-meaning but clearly uninformed families to lead the charge. Opponents are emotionally invested in looking after other people: It’s about protecting the children. It’s about protecting seniors. It’s about protecting the patients.

In reality, it’s about protecting themselves from a changing world they don’t quite accept or understand. One speaker claimed that he feared medical marijuana would lead to heron use. It’s the old if-then theory dressed in protective clothing: If this is permitted, then people will want that, and we’re not going down that road.

Except that we are. Pot will be legalized—and taxed–in the near future. Once that happens, the federal banks will get on board because the money will be too much to resist. Once the banks start to accept checks for pot, there’ll be a momentary cosmic shiver, and then the world will settle down again. As with tobacco, legalization will provide research subjects, and people will be able to make informed choices.

And the children will still play in parks, oblivious to it all.


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