As Legal Cannabis Arrives In Illinois, Some Communities Say ‘No Thanks'

High in the Rockies, the town of Nederland, Colorado sits in a picture postcard setting of snow-capped mountains, shimmering Aspens, even a babbling mountain stream, which runs right through the center of town. It’s easy to see why some 800 people call Nederland home.

Nederland is so small it doesn’t even have a pharmacy, but those 800 residents can choose from three legal cannabis dispensaries.

“There is a huge pro-marijuana culture,” said Town Clerk Miranda Fisher. “And I would say not a lot of people have come out publicly to oppose it.”

Contrast Nederland with west suburban Naperville, home to some 140,000 residents. Naperville is exponentially larger, but has voted against allowing sales when marijuana goes legal in Illinois on Jan. 1.

“People are very passionate on both sides,” Mayor Steve Chirico told NBC 5. “This is an emotional subject—it’s not all about dollars and cents—it’s about people’s feelings as well.”

Chirico was not a supporter of the state legislation legalizing marijuana. But after the vote was taken in Springfield, he conceded that opting-in only made sense for his community.

“I couldn’t find any practical reason not to have dispensaries here in Naperville,” he said. “And be able to regulate and tax it.”

And he believes those taxes could be significant.

“If you take the entire downtown Naperville business district, it brings in about $1.5 million to $2 million annually in sales tax,” he said. “Compare that to 4 or 5 dispensaries, which would bring in about $2 million to $3 million in sales tax.”

But that financial argument hasn’t sold everyone.

“I don’t believe that,” Councilman Kevin Coyne told NBC 5. “The sales figures have proven disappointing time and time again.”

Coyne argues legal pot sales would be a bad fit for his community.

“I am adamantly opposed to marijuana stores coming to Naperville,” he said. “It’s bad for our young people, bad for our schools, bad for our communities.”

Technically, Naperville has said “no” with an asterisk. In March, the mayor notes that the community will put the issue to the voters in a non-binding referendum.

“I think most people on the council have kind of raised their hand and said, whatever the voters say I’ll support,” he said.

But Coyne believes that deck might be stacked, noting that the vote will take place when mostly Democratic voters will be headed to the polls.

“I think if you gave it a fair run, I don’t think there’s any question that the vote would be to not have the stores,” he said.

It’s important to note that in saying “no thanks” to cannabis, Naperville is not alone. Over 60 Illinois communities have either formally voted to opt-out, or are leaning toward opting-out of legal marijuana sales. Five of those cities currently host medical cannabis dispensaries, which would have the right to sell recreational cannabis, but won’t be able to because their host communities have said no.

“Just as a practical matter, I didn’t see any benefit to opting out,” Chirico said. “It’d be a shame to miss out on all that economic activity.”

Back in Nederland, where a deep snowfall can cut the community off from its Colorado neighbors, Town Clerk Fisher told NBC 5 that her community is actually so tolerant of cannabis, they recently lifted a moratorium on new marijuana businesses.

“Some dispensaries will thrive and others will not,” she said. “And it’s not up to the board to decide which ones get to be here and which ones don’t.”

Indeed, Nederland is so matter-of-fact about pot, the Silver Stem cannabis dispensary is in the same complex with City Hall.

“People see that it’s not a bad thing,” said manager Scott Lux, an Illinois native. “It’s no more different than a beer at the local pizza spot.”

And Lux says in reality, most of his customers are visitors.

“Probably 75 to 80 percent tourists,” he estimates, suggesting that residents of his native Illinois may become more accepting of marijuana after legalization finally happens.

“I think it will take a little time, a little adjustment, a little learning process to get started,” he said. “But once you get through that first year, I think it will be smooth like other states that have kind of paved the way—and maybe you can learn some things from them.”

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