DECATUR — Within view of a sign along Wyckles Road welcoming motorists to Harristown, there is a building under construction at its intersection with West Main Street in need of tenants.
Harristown Mayor Evelyn Deverell thinks it would be an ideal location for Macon County’s first recreational marijuana dispensary.
“We approved pretty much everything,” Deverell said, referring to action taken by the village board in 2019 allowing most forms of cannabis businesses to be established in the village. Dispensaries, growers and distributors are welcome, she said.
But a year after the state made the sale of recreational marijuana legal, Harristown officials and Macon County residents who would patronize the local dispensary continue to wait.
After the ordinance was approved, a small number of people showed an interest, including individuals and established cannabis businesses. The Harristown Village Board provided them with information and a copy of the ordinance.
“And I never heard back from any of them,” Deverell said. “We are at a standstill.”
The same was true in nearby Maroa, where officials adopted the state standard recreational cannabis guidelines in all matters including facilities, setbacks from residential and school property, and security. If a cannabis business were to move into Maroa, the owners could research the northern or southern areas of the town.
“We had a couple individuals informally inquire about a license in early spring, but to our knowledge, there have been no formal applications submitted to the state for a permit,” Maroa City Administrator Ted Agee said. “Due to COVID, there have been no changes or developments in the matter since the referendum passed and the ordinances were approved.”
The past year has seen no changes by the Decatur City Council and the Macon County Board, which continue to oppose the local sale of recreational marijuana. And that stance isn’t sitting well with some community members.
Lisa Kendall is a patient with a prescription for cannabis. She travels to another city in order to obtain her medication. “This is a medically prescribed treatment for a legitimately diagnosed condition. Yet I have to drive 45 minutes in each direction,” she said. “It’s incredibly hard on people who have a disability or a debilitating medical condition that are prescribed cannabis to obtain it in our city.”
Kendall is the founder of the Decatur Dispensary Project Facebook group. Throughout the past year she has spoken at numerous Decatur City Council meetings in support of bringing cannabis businesses to the city, but has made little progress.
Jail officials say precautions were taken in March 2020 by the building getting refitted with negative pressure air flow systems to limit circulated air around the facility.
“It’s widespread frustration amongst the citizens of our city that are seeing these record breaking profits month after month happening around the state of Illinois while Decatur sits it out for really no good reason,” Kendall said. “None of the municipalities or cities that have passed legalizing businesses have reported any widespread uptick or any of the issues that the city council reported to be concerned about.”
A petition for an advisory referendum supporting the sale of recreational cannabis in Decatur was submitted to be placed on the April 6 ballot, but it was removed after a challenge stating that it didn’t have enough valid signatures was upheld.
An advisory referendum in March 2020 to allow recreational cannabis sales in Decatur Township passed by a sizable margin. Voters in Maroa approved a similar measure; however, the proposition failed in Blue Mound and Warrensburg. Forsyth and Long Creek also have opted out.
The Decatur City Council voted against allowing recreational cannabis sales in October 2019. Shortly after the cannabis sales became legal, the Macon County Board narrowly voted down allowing retailers to sell recreational cannabis in unincorporated areas. The board voted to examine the ban a year later.
According to Jennifer Gunter, director of Macon County Planning and Zoning, the Macon County Board had not discussed dispensaries since the vote to ban them last year.
“In January, the county board revisited the sunset provision,” she said, at which time the board voted to allow adult-use cannabis growers, adult-use cannabis cultivation centers, adult-use cannabis infuser organizations or infusers, adult-use cannabis processing organizations or processors, and adult-use cannabis transporting organizations or transporters.
“However, (the county) still bans adult use cannabis dispensing organizations,” Gunter said.
According to a statement included on the Jan. 14 county board meeting agenda: “The County has determined that the operation of cannabis business establishments would present adverse impacts upon the health, safety and welfare of the residents, and additional costs, burdens and impacts upon law enforcement and regulatory operations of the county.”
Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe had her own concerns about legalizing the sale of cannabis. She was on the Decatur City Council during the vote to legalize gaming in the city in 2012.
“If I would have known then what I know now, I would have wanted what we were doing to be changed,” she said. “We didn’t know out-of-town companies would come in and put up store-front casinos.”
Moore Wolfe wanted to give other similar cities the opportunity to work through the challenges and changes of legalizing cannabis. “Let’s learn from other cities' mistakes and figure out what we want to do and if we want to do it,” she said.
The Decatur City Council has studied Springfield’s experiences, the mayor said. The capital city has two dispensaries. Decatur found that Springfield’s City Council is unable to tap into the tax dollars, because, under Illinois law, the owners of cannabis businesses cannot disclose their revenue. Although taxes are collected, the city is not allowed to know the amount. “That would be violating proprietary information,” Moore Wolfe said. “The treasurer knows, but can’t tell anybody. And they can’t spend it.”
Other city council concerns with cannabis sales include strains on police officers, black market sales and mental health.
While the city council has not taken up the issue since its initial vote, that could change after the April 6 election, during which three council seats are up for grabs. Some of the 12 candidates on the ballot, which will be whittled down to six after a primary election on Feb. 23, favor having a dispensary in Decatur.
Decatur’s Chief of Police Jim Getz continues to oppose the sale of the drug, citing his research which shows an increase in some crimes in states where it is legal.
While not legal to be sold in Decatur, residents can still purchase it elsewhere and consume it here, meaning the city isn’t immune to any perceived negative effects.
While Getz indicated there is no data to support in increase locally in such things as domestic violence or driving while under the influence associated with the legal sale of the drug, he notes that 2020 wasn’t a typical year.
“But 2020 was an anomaly for all of us,” he said about COVID-19 restrictions. “There were less people out on the streets or on roadways, bars or restaurants were closed. The stats are going to be all over the place.”
Although the potential for cannabis businesses is a possibility, the black market will not go away, Getz said. “Because it’s cheaper,” he said. “Anytime you have drug sales, you have cash involved which sets up a time for a robbery. That stuff’s not going to go away.”
Also, driving under the influence of cannabis can be just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. “There’s a lot of irresponsible people out there that aren’t going to be considerate of getting in a car and driving after they’ve smoked or ingested cannabis,” Getz said.
According to Kendall, the worries of increased crime, robberies or corrupted youth have not come to fruition. “The past year has proven that their concerns were baseless and not based on any facts or science,” she said. “But rather on opinions or religiosity or personal belief systems that don’t support the economic betterment of our city.”
Some members of the community credit Howard Buffett’s financial contributions to the city for the delay in the Decatur council allowing cannabis businesses to open in Decatur. His foundation has donated millions of dollars to facilities and organizations aimed at addiction treatments.
“Many of them have business dealings either with friends in real estate, in the law, in other political systems, or in private contractor roles that have been enriched by Howard Buffet’s role in the community,” Kendall said.
Kendall addressed the benefits of cannabis businesses in Decatur, which could include jobs, tax revenue and economic opportunity as well as career opportunities for women, people of color and others. “It’s an emerging economy, not only of jobs but also of health, wellness and holistic care,” she said. “Why is Decatur missing out on this?”
Jobs may include growers, cultivators, processors, office help, doctors, craft service people, marketing, and patient advocacy. “It’s just like any other commodity,” Kendall said. “Except this one actually has demonstrable, scientifically proven health benefits. And it’s legal in our state.”
Back in Harristown, the wait for an interested developer continues.
Like most villages and cities, Harristown’s approval of cannabis businesses was based on the hope of future tax revenue, according to Deverell. The village would collect 3% sales tax from cannabis businesses, as written in the ordinance. Harristown is one of only a few communities in Macon County that does not collect sales or village property taxes. Citizens and businesses do pay state taxes and Macon County property taxes. “To run the village, we were looking for other sources of income,” Deverell said.
Most of Harristown's revenue is obtained through the business district sales tax which was implemented in January. “And the village has had some very good financial management in the past,” Deverell said. “We’re looking for further options to increase the village’s revenue.”
Chris Parks is the owner of the four-unit complex on the corner of Wyckles Road and Main Street. “And we just bought the real estate to the east of it,” Parks said.
If the new building was to be used for marijuana businesses, Parks was onboard.
“I don’t participate in that kind of stuff,” he said. “But I think it would bring some tax dollars to the village of Harristown, which would be great.”
The location is situated adjacent to Decatur’s city line. “They would benefit from Decatur’s population coming right to their front door,” Parks said. “Harristown would get the tax revenue.”
2019 Decatur City Council meeting on cannabis sales
Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR