Members of the City Council’s Human Services Committee voted unanimously Monday night to approve a plan that could see Evanston becoming the landlord for a medical marijuana dispensary downtown.

With the six members of the committee in favor, it appears that approval of the plan to offer vacant retail space in the Maple Avenue parking garage for lease by a dispensary by the full nine-member City Council next week is assured.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked whether state rules requiring separation of dispensaries from schools and pre-schools might preclude the opening of new “support services for families” downtown.

But Johanna Nyden of the city’s economic development staff said the restriction only barred dispensaries from opening near existing school sites and would not preclude a school from opening close to a dispensary in the future.

Fiske also questioned whether the city might be held liable if someone who acquired marijuana from the dispensary suffered ill effects.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said staff had looked at experiences in the 23 other states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana, “and we haven’t found any of those issues have come up. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow.”

“The state is looking to move forward, and we have an opportunity to find a tenant for a space that we have not been able to fill,” Bobkiewicz said, “But with any opportunity there are pluses and minuses.”

“If we aren’t the landlord, a dispensary will likely locate elsewhere nearby, either in Evanston or somewhere in Niles Township,” he added.

Under the state medical marijuana statute, only one dispensary will be allowed to locate in the area that includes Evanston and Niles Township. And, as part of the application process to win the state license, applicants have to prove that they have a landlord willing to lease a specific property to them that meets the location restrictions in the statute.

Bobkiewicz says about 10 would-be operators have asked city officials whether they would be willing to lease the garage space and representatives of three of the operators appeared at Monday’s meeting.

Chris Canning, a Wilmette attorney representing The Med Farm, a firm that’s also seeking to set up a marijuana cultivation facility in Peru, Ill., said the company hopes “to bring professionalism to this industry that we don’t think exists now and do scientific research on the use of cannabinoids” for the treatment of various medical conditions.

He said the company is working with two researchers at Northwestern University’s medical school to set up the research program and that the ability to do the research would depend largely on the opportunity to work with patients through company-owned dispensaries.

In response to a question from Fiske about why medical marijuana couldn’t be dispensed from regular pharmacies like CVS or Walgreen’s, Canning said that the federal government still lists marijuana as a schedule 1 drug with no approved medical uses — so it can’t be dispensed in a regular pharmacy regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“I think when people see the help this provides to patients,” Canning said, “the political pressure will come upon the federal government to change that.”

“Lots of people are trying to get it taken off schedule 1, but when that will happen is anybody’s guess,” Canning added.

The proposal approved by the committee would have the city issue letters to any applicant that requested one saying that it is willing to negotiate a lease with an entity awarded the state license. But, Bobkiewicz said, the city expects to receive a market-rate rent for the storefront space.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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