Marion Mayor Mike Absher

Marion Mayor Mike Absher talks about whether the city should allow recreational cannabis dispensaries to operate within city limits, during a City Council meeting on Sept. 9. The City Council voted not to allow those businesses.

MARION — Two items on the agenda for the Marion City Council’s regular meeting Monday evening drew a crowd as the council voted on a proposed ordinance to prohibit cannabis and discussed the Mayor’s 2020 Vision proposal.

The mayor suspended the public comment portion of the meeting to allow public discussion as the council addressed the issues.

When the mayor finished all the other business, he asked how many in the audience wanted to speak about adult use of cannabis. Only four or five residents raised their hands.

The city council had two ordinances on cannabis to consider. One ordinance prohibits the operation of any cannabis-related business establishment within the city of Marion. The other would allow cannabis-related businesses in the city.

Marion attorney Ron Osman was the first to speak. He asked the council to amend the ordinance to include a definition of cannabis. Osman said that definition is necessary for agricultural hemp businesses to operate in the city.

He added that he is negotiating with a company to come to Marion for industrial hemp. That company has said it will back out of the project if Marion does not define cannabis in whichever ordinance it passes.

“I’m just asking that you solve a problem before it occurs,” Osman said.

Several residents spoke, but none more passionately than two young people with some experience using marijuana.

A young man identified during the meeting as Jeremy, first smoked marijuana at age 9. As of Monday evening, Jeremy had been drug-free for 2 years, six months and 15 days.

Jeremy said cannabis was detrimental to society.

“We have to get a grip on our addiction problem. In 1999, there were 16,849 overdose deaths nationally, but by 2017, there was 70,237, a major increase of more than 50,000 people,” Jeremy said.

He gave some details of his life. His mother smoked marijuana and kept him in an environment where drugs were prevalent. He smoked his first joint at age 9. As he got older, he was around a lot of people who did all kinds of drugs. He started taking prescription medications and stayed intoxicated until about age 16, when he gave up everything except marijuana and alcohol.

After graduating from high school, his friends talked him into trying methamphetamine. The period of addiction that followed included many arrests, hospitalizations, failed rehab attempts and homelessness. After several suicide attempts, he had a moment of clarity and sought help.

“My generation has been gripped by drug addiction like no other generation before. It has become an epidemic,” Jeremy said.

He asked the council to vote to prohibit recreational marijuana in the city. The audience clapped vigorously and many stood as he exited the podium.

Jenna, a single mother with three children, spoke in favor of allowing cannabis in Marion.

“I have a very similar story. I was addicted to methamphetamine,” Jenna said. “I lost custody of my children twice. I just recently got custody of my children back, and I’m no longer involved with DCFS.”

She said she knows people think marijuana is a gateway drug, but it is not. She added that it is the places and people you hang out with that leads to addiction.

Jenna struggles every day. She started a fire at her mother’s, and her face and hands were burned. She is in pain and out of work. She cannot smoke weed because she is a felon.

“I know in the end marijuana is going to be legal one day. I know it. I don’t want to have to travel to Herrin. Sometimes at night I just want to take something,” Jenna said.

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Jenna is the mom of three children. She admitted that her life is sometimes hard and stressful. However, she is a convicted felon, so she cannot use cannabis.

“To some people it might be a gateway drug, but to people who don’t want to go back to that life it’s not a gateway drug,” Jenna said.

The mayor thanked Jeremy and Jenna for having the courage to speak. “This illustrates how difficult this issue is,” Absher said.

One more speaker got up and spoke in favor of allowing cannabis related businesses in the city and taxing the proceeds of that business. Several followed who were in favor of not allowing cannabis businesses in Marion. Then the councilmen began weighing in.

John Stoecklin contacted seven cities the same size as Marion in Colorado, Nevada, Michigan and California. Five of the seven allowed sale of cannabis immediately. Two said no, but one has since reversed that decision. There was a revenue increase of between $150,00 and $350,000 in each city.

“I would prefer to have regulation rather than saying you can’t buy it here,” Stoecklin said.

John Barwick talked to municipalities in Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska.

“After researching the issue, I cannot support the sale of marijuana in the city of Marion,” Barwick said.

Doug Patton said he struggled with the issue, so he tried to look at the bigger picture. He believes recreational cannabis use is here and will not go away.

“I am ready to vote, and I will vote no tonight,” Patton said.

“I’d have to vote to not allow it in Marion,” Jim Webb said.

Mayor Absher thanked those who spoke for not demonizing marijuana use. He then pointed to Jenna and Jeremy and said he would sit down and have dinner with either one of them.

“I just cannot support it,” Absher said.

A new paragraph was added to the ordinance to say that definitions in the state law would apply to the city law.

The council voted to prohibit cannabis-related businesses in Marion, with only Stoecklin dissenting.

The mayor’s 2020 Vision proposal was on the agenda for discussion. Several people talked about the plan and asked questions. Absher explained that he was working on a plan to fill revenue gaps when he realized that a 75 cent tax increase could do away with the portion of property taxes paid to the city of Marion.

He also talked about what economic development tools might pop up after the end of the city’s TIF districts expired.

The council will likely take action on the proposal at its Sept. 23 meeting. A tax increase would have to be passed before Oct. 1.

The council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 23.

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