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Local Editorials

OUR VIEW: Lee County Board breaks from the pack

Its decision to not institute recreational marijuana taxes raises questions as to whether everyone in the county is on the same page

City and county government bodies are working feverishly to prepare for the legalization of recreational marijuana, effective Jan. 1 in Illinois. That means drawing up ordinances on what they have the authority to control. Priorities have been amending zoning ordinances, establishing regulations for businesses, and setting local taxes on sales.

Their jobs are made more difficult by some gray areas that exist in the original state statute. Unfortunately, the biggest question mark greatly impacts the way everything else is addressed – or not. According to the Illinois Municipal League, a municipality can choose to ban all marijuana business establishments. Many municipal attorneys, however, read the same language and don’t think it gives the ability to opt out without risk. The fear is that municipalities that do opt out could eventually be challenged in court.

A trailer bill that would clear up all of the statute’s murky territory is expected, but probably won’t be done before the new year begins.

We’ve seen the Whiteside County Board set its tax on recreational marijuana at 3.75% in unincorporated areas of the county and 3% in its cities. It was done without discussion and approved unanimously.

Sterling approved a 3% tax on recreational marijuana last month, while Dixon set its local tax at 3% on Monday. Rock Falls has been busy with zoning issues, recommending that the council give the businesses an adult use tag and confine them to the industrial parks. In Rock Falls, some members of the Planning and Zoning Commission have expressed an interest in opting out, but were advised to consider the legal risk. They are putting plans in place and awaiting clarification on the opt-out matter.

So it was surprising to see the Lee County Board on Tuesday vote against putting the same tax in place that the Whiteside County Board has instituted. The discussion became heated in Lee County before the board, with three members absent, shot down setting the taxes by a vote of 7-to-14. The board now plans to vote on an opt-out measure next month.

While Lee County wouldn’t be the only municipality to opt out based largely on broad moral objections to recreational marijuana, some of the logic from the meeting was hard to follow.

Board members Jim Schielein and Tom Kitson said it’s hypocritical for the board to sign off on taxing marijuana when they’re participating in a nationwide lawsuit against opioid companies. Schielein called it “hypocrisy for the sake of revenue.”

There is much debate right now among health professionals as to whether marijuana can help to solve the opioid crisis. Regardless of where you stand in that conversation, it applies mainly to medical marijuana and not recreational.

Another board member, Dave Bowers, said instituting a tax would send a bad message – that the county was in the drug business. Bob Olsen, however, pointed out that not taxing it could be counterproductive to that end. Olsen’s point is valid – not being taxed by the county could actually be perceived as an incentive for businesses considering Dixon.

The Dixon City Council hasn’t formally made a decision on dispensaries but is in the process of drafting zoning regulations for them. A developer is also considering Dixon if it gets one of three recreational licenses the state will grant in the region in May.

While we respect everyone’s personal views on the morality of recreational marijuana, we caution Lee County Board members to look beyond their own personal views to get a clear picture of what is in the best interests of the county. The county could have passed the tax and still chosen to opt out of the dispensary business, allowing it to collect revenue from businesses in Dixon or its other municipalities.

The most important question residents should be asking right now is whether a concerted countywide effort has been made to plan for the advent of marijuana legalization. We would hope that county and municipal leaders, especially in Dixon, have worked together to determine whether this should be an important part of its economic future. From what we’re seeing thus far, it’s questionable as to whether Lee County’s leaders are on the same page.

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