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Sensibilities meeting reality on medical marijuana

New law forces city leaders to tweak language in rules, step out of comfort zone

STERLING – While state statute lays the ground rules for the medicinal marijuana pilot program in Illinois, local governments still have plenty of work to do in preparing to utilize it.

Also, just because dispensaries and grow centers for medicinal purposes will be legal doesn’t mean the issue won’t be divisive.

While the Sterling Plan Commission worked on some draft language on Aug. 21, it appeared that city officials were sometimes thinking outside of their comfort zone.

Click here to read the Illinois statute regulating the medical marijuana pilot program.

Some of the broader logistics don’t seem to be a problem. City consultant Dustin Wolff said the city feels good about the zoning districts that have been targeted for the cultivation centers and dispensaries.

“We’re proposing allowing cultivation centers in B-3 because it’s safe and meets the criteria,” Wolff said. “They are limited in application because of the buffer zone. The dispensaries would be in M-2 – the General Manufacturing District.”

Heather Sotelo, executive director at Greater Sterling Development Corp., said the only place a cultivation center could go is outside the city limits.

Sotelo and Police Chief Ron Potthoff assured the commissioners that the Illinois statute provides strict regulation.

“I’m impressed with how tough the Illinois statute is now, but like in California, it’ll probably soften later,” Potthoff said.

Potthoff recommended that a dispensary not go downtown.

Sotelo said the downtown couldn’t accommodate a dispensary because of parking issues and the challenges of retrofitting the old buildings in that area.

Two changes were made at the meeting, both backtracking on requirements that exceeded what the state statue called for.

Regarding location requirements, part of the state law says “A registered dispensing organization may not be located in a house, apartment, condominium, or an area zoned for residential use.” The city had looked at adding a 1,000-foot buffer between a dispensing facility and a residential area.

The state regulations already provide for a 1,000-foot buffer zone for the cultivation centers. Only 21 grow centers will be allowed in Illinois – one for each of the state police districts with the exception of the tollway district.

The state statute calls for up to 60 dispensaries, set by population guidelines and ensuring that no one has to drive more than a couple hours to get their prescription.

After some spirited discussion, the language was changed to reduce the proposed dispensary barrier from 1,000 feet to 500 feet.

The city had added places of worship to the mix of locations requiring a barrier. Sotelo questioned why religious institutions should be included when they are not in the state statue.

“The dispensaries are going to be like a CVS or Walgreens,” she said. “We have to realize this is legal, whether we like it or not politically.”

Wolff said churches were added in adherence to the original intent of the statute.

“That’s another place where children are, and the law was meant to keep them away,” he said.

Sotelo said it is important that city leaders understand the economic magnitude of medical marijuana.

“There may be a dispensary in northwest Illinois,” she said. “Wherever it is, people are going to go there twice a month to pick up prescriptions, and it’s likely they’ll shop, get gas and food there, too.”

City Attorney Ron Coplan said this is new territory for everyone, and no one is really sure where it will ultimately lead.

“We’re in a stage where there is a lot of knee-jerk anti-drug sentiment,” Coplan said. “But it’s legal, and if it’s properly regulated and controlled, you just hope it doesn’t turn into recreational use.”

Commissioner Rene Morris said, that as public officials, they have to put aside sensibilities and deal with the reality of the situation.

“It’s here, and we have to embrace it,” she said. “The B-3 zoning makes economic sense because the shopping is growing that way.”

After some spirited discussion, the commission agreed to strike places of worship from the location requirements section.

“The state statute is very strict, and I don’t see the need to go beyond what is called for in the statute,” commissioner Mike Mellott said.

The commissioners also agreed that a special use designation should be used for zoning purposes to allow for a public input component.

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