Updated at 8:15 p.m., Dec. 17:
By a vote of 7-3, the Fairview Heights City Council voted to allow and tax recreational cannabis sales in the city.
Original story from 8:30 a.m., Dec. 17:
FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS — The city council will decide if it wants to allow and tax recreational cannabis sales in the community at its meeting on Tuesday night.
Fairview Heights finds itself facing a decision similar to the one other Metro East communities did after Illinois state legislators voted to allow recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older starting Jan. 1.
“This is a tough decision to make,” said Fairview Heights Mayor Mark Kupsky. “Like other local communities, we’re conservative.”
Several aldermen are not in favor of cannabis in general but are weighing the money the city could make from taxing sales, he said. Aldermen are also considering how legal marijuana will impact safety in the community, specifically how police will patrol and test to determine if someone is driving under the influence, Kupsky added.
“There are mixed opinions about it,” he said. “Our elected officials try to look at every revenue opportunity that could affect the city good and bad.”
But Fairview Heights’ decision is unlike that of other Metro East communities that have already decided whether they want to allow recreational sales, because it will likely determine where the next recreational cannabis dispensary opens in the region.
The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act signed into law in June lets any current medical dispensary apply for a license to open a secondary location in the same region. There are two such dispensaries in the Metro East, HCI Alternatives in Collinsville and the Green Solution in Sauget.
“We’re going to have two secondary sites, one in Springfield and hopefully one in Fairview Heights,” said Chris Stone, senior policy advisor for Ascend Illinois.
The Green Solution plans to expand to another site but is still searching for a location.
The state will also grant 75 dispensary licenses for applicants that don’t have an existing medical dispensary, but those won’t be awarded until May 1. The Metro East will see up to four of those new licenses.
Ascend would want to open its potential secondary dispensaries before the other licenses are issued, Stone explained.
“We’ll be looking at having the two secondaries built out and hopefully open within the first quarter of 2020,” he said.
But the process might take longer in Fairview Heights. The city has a series of reviews, license applications and building permit applications that mean dispensaries won’t be able to show up instantaneously, Kupsky said.
Ascend targeted Fairview Heights for a second dispensary because of the city’s location.
“It’s a main artery for the Metro East,” Stone said. He added that Fairview Heights is far enough away from the current dispensary in Collinsville that it would serve a different set of consumers.
The company started working to acquire a facility in the city within six weeks of the cannabis bill passage, Stone said. Ascend did not disclose specifics, only that the potential location is near IL-159 and I-64.
“It’s a good facility, and it’s got great visibility from the highway,” Stone said.
St. Louis Public Radio could not confirm if Ascend has formally acquired space in Fairview Heights yet. The city council still needs to vote to approve recreational sales before any dispensary can come to the community.
How do Fairview Heights residents feel?
Opinions among residents about whether the city should allow dispensaries in the community vary.
“I don’t have a problem with individuals who use marijuana for recreational use, but I would rather it not be sold in my community,” said Tiffany Evans, 47.
Evans works as a counselor at Arbor Counseling in Fairview Heights and said her work colors her opinion.
“Just working in mental health, people self-medicate,” she said. “It’s just not always appropriate.”
Evans said she would prefer if people had to drive farther, outside of Fairview Heights, to access legal marijuana.
“We have enough of these head shops right here in Fairview Heights, and we don’t need to add anything else,” she said.
But other residents see a potential new source of revenue for the city.
“I think they should have the sales. It would help the city make money,” Monte Howard, 68, said.
People in the community are already going to use marijuana regardless of whether the city allows sales or not, she said.
“It’s just like crossing the line and buying alcohol when your county doesn’t allow it,” Howard said. “It’s going to be here anyway.”
City leaders also recognize that reality. Fairview Heights will face many of the same challenges whether it opts to allow recreational sales or not, Kupsy said.
“If local communities around us allow it, the same people will be traversing through our city to get to those [dispensary] locations because of our proximity to the interstate,” he said.
The city still has a lot to decide before any dispensary or other marijuana-related business can open there. For one thing, it needs to tackle zoning regulations for cannabis businesses.
“Whether we vote to opt in or opt out, we will still pass zoning legislation just to protect our city for the future,” Kupsky said. “It’s my goal they’re not close to churches, schools or neighborhoods and not in our central business district.”
Edwardsville, Collinsville, East St. Louis, Belleville and Highland have approved recreational marijuana sales within their city limits. St. Clair County will also allow recreational sales in unincorporated portions of the county.
Recreational marijuana sales will be prohibited in O’Fallon and unincorporated parts of Madison County come Jan. 1.
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid
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