Having failed to receive the requisite amount of signatures, an advisory referendum on recreational cannabis sales in Decatur will not appear on the April 6 ballot.
But, in a sense, the issue of recreational cannabis is still front-and-center as Decatur voters choose among six candidates to fill three seats on the seven-person city council.
The makeup of the next council will be critical in determining the future of the cannabis industry within the city, making this election a de facto referendum on the topic.
“I would expect that it will be brought up regardless of what the outcome is of the election,” said Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe. “Obviously, there are several candidates that are very, very pro-all aspects of cannabis. So a lot, I think, depends on who gets elected as to which direction we'll be going.”
Four of six candidates — incumbent David Horn and challengers Jacob Jenkins, Marty Watkins and Will Wetzel — support reversing the council’s October 2019 decision to not allow cannabis dispensaries within city limits. They also support allowing other cannabis-related businesses, such as cultivation centers and transporter facilities.
The other two candidates, incumbent Chuck Kuhle and challenger Ed Culp, say they are against permitting dispensaries and other cannabis-related businesses, though Culp said he might be open to the latter at a later date.
“I think we need to allow legal industries to be in the city of Decatur, and specifically I'm talking about the cannabis industry, which has significant synergies with one of our greatest strengths, which is agriculture,” Horn said.
Horn was the lone ‘aye’ vote to allow recreational dispensaries in 2019. He was joined by council members Bill Faber and Rodney Walker in voting to permit other cannabis-related businesses, still one vote shy of a majority.
Several council members at the time expressed concerns about how allowing recreational sales could affect the community, particularly young people. They also said they received feedback from residents who did not want the city to allow the sales.
A few members said at the time that they might be in favor of reconsidering the decision later after seeing what happens in other communities.
Moore Wolfe, though still against allowing dispensaries within city limits, said she would be open to having another discussion about it as well as cannabis-related businesses.
But some, like Kuhle, say their mind hasn’t changed.
“I've seen no evidence yet that a dispensary would benefit our city so my answer is no,” Kuhle said when asked about the topic at a candidate’s forum earlier this month.
"If you do some research, you would make just as much money off of Chick-fil-a as you would a dispensary, OK? And you wouldn't have to worry about driving under the influence of chicken with a Chick-fil-a," Kuhle said, responding to candidates who suggested that the city was leaving money on the table by not permitting cannabis-related businesses.
Still, the potentially-huge financial ramifications of cannabis cannot be ignored.
In 2020, the first year of the legal market, there was more than $669 million in recreational sales, generating more than $175 million in tax revenue for the state of Illinois.
Municipalities and counties with dispensaries also cashed in. Beyond what they collected from the regular sales tax, municipalities had the option of tacking on an additional 3% tax on all cannabis sales within their jurisdiction. Counties had the option of adding an additional 3.75% on sales in unincorporated areas.
In Springfield, the nearly $900,000 in revenue generated from the 3% excise tax is being split between an additional payment to the city’s police and fire pension systems and economic development initiatives on the low-income, minority-majority east side.
The Springfield City Council just approved language allocating about $350,000 of the funds for one-time grants to minority-owned businesses and up to $100,000 for a rehabilitation program for long time homeowners.
Several pro-cannabis candidates said money from a prospective dispensary can be utilized to address similar needs in Decatur.
“I would just say that if the city council desires it, we can create dedicated revenue streams for neighborhood revitalization,” Horn said. “Whether it is revenue from video gambling, whether it is revenue from cannabis dispensaries, we can find a way to fund and invest in our neighborhoods.”
Jenkins agreed, adding that the revenue could go toward a number of needs, such as addressing gun violence and tackling the pension issue.
“I'm in favor of a cannabis ordinance, as well as taking the funding and money from the cannabis ordinance to help curb violence in the community,” Jenkins said. “Not only gun violence, but also domestic violence. We can also make sure that our law enforcement has adequate mental health and we can also bear some of the pension burden, which is astronomical at this time.”
Still, even if the council adopted to reverse itself, a dispensary would likely not open anytime soon.
Currently, the only dispensaries open are those operated by the state’s 55 medical cannabis license holders. They were allowed to apply for an “early approval adult use license” to sell recreational products at their existing dispensaries as well as recreational-only secondary locations.
Macon County had no existing medical dispensaries and thus was not included in the first round. At least one dispensary license will be awarded to the county in the next wave, but there have been significant delays in the process due to the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns over social equity.
Only two municipalities in Macon County, Harristown and Maroa, have permitted the sales of recreational cannabis. Many believe the former, with its proximity to Interstate 72 on the outskirts of Decatur, to be the odds-on favorite location for a dispensary.
This would likely mean that the dispensary would serve mostly Decatur residents but the city would see none of the benefits from the sales tax revenue generated.
The same could be the case for cannabis-related businesses. Macon County in January narrowly approved an ordinance permitting non-dispensary cannabis businesses in unincorporated parts of the county.
“It's a $1 billion industry,” Jenkins said. “With us being the agricultural hub of Illinois, I will say over and over again there is no reason why we're not growing it in our facilities, (not processing) it in our labs and (not distributing it) with the Midwest Inland Port and other ventures like that. We have logistics and trucking here.”
With three incumbent council members already having voted for cannabis-related businesses, the lift would likely be easier than a dispensary, considered a "hot-button" issue for many.
Early voting has been underway for the past two weeks and will continue up until the day before the April 6 election.
The candidates advanced after placing in the top six in the February primary.
The top four vote-getters — Horn, Culp, Kuhle and Watkins — finished relatively close to one another. Wetzel and Jenkins placed a distant fifth and sixth, respectively.
Meet the Decatur City Council candidates on the April 6 ballot
Meet the Decatur City Council candidates on the April 6 ballot
The Herald & Review is profiling the candidates for Decatur City Council.
The Herald & Review is profiling the candidates running for Decatur City Council.