Columbia courting cannabis?

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The future of a possible cannabis dispensary in Columbia took a step forward during a city council committee meeting last Tuesday night.

Columbia Director of Community Development Scott Dunakey sought the council’s guidance regarding how to proceed with the upcoming zoning code update.

Columbia City Council’s Committee of the Whole voted 5-3 in favor of having Dunakey and his staff draft zoning language to permit a potential dispensary.

Dunakey began his comments by mentioning a news story he had read about the town of Ontario, Ore., a city that shares many similarities to Columbia.

The City of Ontario legalized cannabis dispensaries in 2018 with a 3 percent municipal sales tax. The cannabis sales tax alone has generated roughly $90,000 for the city.

In addition, Dunakey reported that many people who once opposed the legal sale in Ontario now support it because there have been no marked increases in illegal activity and the city has been able to use proceeds to add officers to its police department.

Dunakey suggested that the only zoning he would recommend for Columbia would be for a dispensary, not anything involving cannabis cultivation or transportation.

He also provided the committee with a map of possible locations for a dispensary if certain requirements were implemented, such as a 1,500-foot buffer from schools, only allowing dispensaries within one mile of an interstate and requiring building only in commercial park zones.

The only possible location for a potential dispensary would be in the commercial park on Southport Drive on the north end of Columbia off I-255.  

The committee discussed how to advise Dunakey to proceed. If no business zoning code exists for a cannabis dispensary, no cannabis business could exist within the city limits when adult-use recreational cannabis becomes legal in Illinois at the beginning of 2020.

Ward IV Alderman Mary Ellen Niemietz, a lifelong Columbia resident and member of the Monroe County Coalition for Drug-Free Communities, spoke out against allowing a business zone for a future cannabis business.

“Is this the image for Columbia that we want?” Niemietz asked, noting that “once (the city) sets up zoning, we are allowing (cannabis sales).”

Ward II Alderman Kevin Martens, while not a vocal proponent of marijuana use, said “the horse is out of the pen” regarding legalization, adding that the city will have “problems if we have (a dispensary) in town or we don’t have it in town.”

“‘Is it worth it’ is the question we have to answer,” Martens concluded.

Niemietz countered by saying there is a “huge difference” between having a dispensary in Columbia rather than in nearby St. Clair County.

“I know that people think (cannabis sales) is the cure-all” for city funding issues, “but there are other things that could be a windfall” for Columbia, Niemietz added.

Ward II Alderman Mark Roessler commented that he did not like the idea of a dispensary in Columbia, but that denying it would be “unrealistic.”

Niemietz also asked about the potential for crime with a cash-based business in the commercial park, remarking that people will know the business would have a large amount of cash on hand.

Columbia Mayor Hutchinson responded by noting the U.S. House of Representatives recently advanced a bill that would allow banks to provide services to cannabis businesses in states where it is legal.

Since the sale of cannabis is still against federal law, banks are hesitant to provide services to such businesses.

Hutchinson acknowledged that it is not law yet, but many reputable publications and sources anticipate the bill to pass in the Senate.  

Dunakey added that no business could be in Columbia for at least a year if this city zoning change gets approved, since the zoning updates need to be created and approved by the Columbia City Council before any further action may take place.

Dunakey expects the entire zoning code update draft, including cannabis business language, to be ready by the end of February, although he also said he did not have a timeline for changes to other codes such as city nuisance and employment policies to become Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act compliant.   

Aldermen Niemietz, Roessler and Gene Ebersohl voted against the creation of zoning language for a future cannabis dispensary.

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