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Sam Cahnman

Sam Cahnman, an attorney working with The Decatur Dispensary Project, addresses the attendees of a town hall meeting on Monday. 

DECATUR — Advocates for recreational cannabis sales in Decatur are preparing to gather thousands of signatures by Dec. 16, the deadline to get their desired public referendum on the March primary ballot.

Organizers of The Decatur Dispensary Project held a town hall meeting at Golden Fox Brewery to provide information and rally support for their cause: asking Decatur voters whether dispensaries should be allowed in the city limits. They’ll need to gather at least 1,924 signatures from registered Decatur voters, said John Phillips Jr., one of the organizers. 

Organizers said they would seek to collect 4,000 to 5,000 signatures in case the validity of signatures is challenged, and would hope to have them collected by the end of November. 

“This petition is not for or against (allowing dispensaries),” said Sam Cahnman, a Springfield attorney volunteering his time to help the group. “It just says, let’s put the question on the ballot. Let the citizens decide. Let them let the city council know what their views are.”

Legislation signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June legalizes the recreational use in Illinois starting Jan. 1, but it also allows municipalities to decide whether dispensaries can operate within their limits. Members of the Decatur City Council voted 6-1 on Sept. 30 to “opt out” of allowing the sales. Four members also declined to support adding a referendum to put the question to the people.

The measure would not be binding, meaning the city council would not be required to follow the voters’ direction. Cahnman said some neighboring states allow voters to make binding decisions directly, but Illinois is not one of them.

“If an overwhelming majority of voters voted yes in the city of Decatur, you’d think that would have an influence on some members of the city council,” Cahnman said.

Where to buy recreational cannabis in Central Illinois? Some cities are still deciding

Council members said they were concerned about public safety and the message that allowing a dispensary would send, particularly as they celebrate ongoing construction of a $60 million drug addiction and social services campus funded by former Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett. Law enforcement leaders also spoke out against allowing the sales.

But residents who spoke during Monday’s meeting said the council’s decision wasn’t based on sound scientific evidence and data, and was not in line with public opinion. Lisa Kendall, co-chair of the Central Illinois Democratic Socialists of America, said recreational use will be legal no matter what the council decides about sales.

“All they’re saying is no to taxes, no to revenue,” she said. “And right after that happened, they raise property taxes.” The council on Monday night discussed a proposed 2.2% increase in the property tax levy, which city leaders have said was driven by increasing public safety pension costs.

Kyle Fair, a 32-year-old Mount Zion resident, said he is a medical cannabis patient who must drive 100 miles to the nearest dispensary. Fair was arrested in May 2018 after police found 25 cannabis plants, 5 pounds of cannabis and the equipment used to extract cannabis oil in his home. He previously told the Herald & Review that he used the plant to treat traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and he had supplied cannabis oil to others with diseases such as cancer.

He eventually pleaded guilty to one charge of possession with intent to deliver and was fined $54,000. During the town hall on Monday, Fair told the group that he began growing his own cannabis because of the high price of medical cannabis and the distance to obtain it; when he first qualified, the closest dispensary was 200 miles away, he said.

The new legislation provides an avenue for medical users like Fair, who will be allowed to grow up to five plants. But he said that is not a viable option for some people who could benefit, because they have a disability or live in rental housing with rules against cultivation.

“I’m here to make sure everybody else has, all adults have safe, legal, local access,” Fair said. “I think that’s really important.”

The dispensary group was formed after the council voted against allowing the sales, and it accumulated hundreds of members in a matter of hours. It now has just under 1,700 members.

Decatur group pushing for referendum on cannabis sales

About 30 people of a range of ages showed up Monday night, something Kendall said she expected: “You see what Facebook activism to real-life activism translates to,” she said.

Several residents said they knew of others who wanted to join the effort but were afraid of being targeted by law enforcement, particularly if they had a criminal record. Kendall told the volunteers that each of them would be representing at least a hundred others who were too scared, limited by their jobs, too frail to get out in the cold weather or otherwise unable to help.

“We are the representation of a much, much larger group of people who want to see this happen,” she said.

Harristown on Oct. 28 voted to allow dispensaries in the village. Some other communities have already opted out, including Long Creek and Mount Zion. Other government bodies, including the Macon County Board, have not yet made a decision.

The county board’s decision would only apply to unincorporated areas. The board’s Environmental, Education, Health and Welfare Committee had been set to consider the measure, but it was pulled from the agenda and has not yet been discussed by board members. Chairman Kevin Greenfield previously told the Herald & Review that the board would wait until after the state legislative veto session, which concludes later this month.

County board member Laura Zimmerman told the town hall attendees that the measure that had initially been proposed would have prohibited cultivation centers and other cannabis-related businesses in addition to dispensaries. “That’s something a lot of us are not too thrilled about,” she said.

Zimmerman, who is also chairwoman of the Macon County Democrats, encouraged residents to reach out to board members about their views on the issue.

“Most of the members on the county board are working in good faith,” she said. “They really are interested in this issue and trying to educate themselves … They will listen to you.”

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Contact Allison Petty at (217) 421-6986. Follow her on Twitter: @allison0512

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