Everything Evanston: Gearing up for recreational cannabis; Over The Rainbow provides affordable housing for people with disabilities

Kalen Luciano, Heena Srivastava, Julia Esparza, and Amy Coval

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HEENA SRIVASTAVA: We’re on hold with Verilife Medical Marijuana Dispensary. Their music is really elegant.

JOSH IRVINE: I remember I once tried to call The New York Times. The Helpline. And it was just horrifying.

SRIVASTAVA: Their wait music?

IRVINE: It was so distorted and awful and ear-shatteringly painful.

SRIVASTAVA: Maybe that’s how they get you to not cancel.

IRVINE: I mean, I didn’t. I’m going to give four dollars a month to The New York Times till the day I die.

SRIVASTAVA: Thanks for tuning into Everything Evanston. I’m Heena Srivastava, and I’m here with one of The Daily Northwestern’s city reporters, Josh Irvine. Thanks for being here, Josh.

IRVINE: Glad to be here.

SRIVASTAVA: Recreational cannabis will be legal come the new year. How is Evanston going to change? And what do you need to know about consumption? Josh and I are going to walk you through it.

SRIVASTAVA: Let’s start with licensing. You may think legalization means dispensaries galore come Jan. 1. But in reality, licenses to open dispensaries aren’t easy to get. You can only open a dispensary if you have a state-issued license, but ahead of Jan. 1, the state is only issuing licenses to places that already sell medical cannabis. Everyone else looking to open a purely recreational dispensary has to wait until the state awards new licenses in May.

Right now, the only dispensary in Evanston is Verilife Medical Marijuana. It’s on Maple Avenue across from Chili’s. They are seeking a license to sell recreational cannabis. Josh, can you talk a little bit about Verilife and what they are up to right now?

IRVINE: Sure. So, Verilife is currently Evanston’s sole medicinal dispensary. It is owned by PharmaCann but is currently in the process of being acquired by MedMen, which is a very large marijuana franchise. MedMen previously tried to acquire the entirety of PharmaCann but that deal fell through about a month ago.

JEREMY UNRUH: We’re hoping that the acquisition of the Evanston dispensary by MedMen will close in a period of time measured in weeks and not months.

SRIVASTAVA: This is Jeremy Unruh of PharmaCann.

UNRUH: It has applied for and is in the process of receiving an early access adult use dispensary license for an existing location, which means it is going to co-locate, or sell to both medical patients and adult use consumers.

DON WILLIAMS: I think we’re excited to be here. We’re excited to be a good neighbor.

SRIVASTAVA: And that’s Don Williams of MedMen. That conversation was from Oct. 14. They planned to acquire Verilife within weeks, but that didn’t happen. The same day we talked to them, Evanston City Council debated zoning requirements put forth by the Evanston Plan Commission. But the council never approved those requirements. Josh, what are the proposed zoning requirements as of now?

IRVINE: Dispensaries have a buffer zone surrounding them. They may not operate within 1,500 feet of another dispensary and they may not operate within 750 feet of a public or private school. Under those rules, Verilife enjoys a pretty comfortable share of Evanston’s downtown market. Large stretches of Chicago Avenue south of Dempster Street are open to development, as are portions of the Howard Street Corridor, though Chicago Public Schools will limit the spaces on Howard Street. Dispensaries will be allowed to operate between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., which is good because most Evanston restaurants close at 10, and if you had to eat for whatever reason, that’s a pretty comfortable margin.

SRIVASTAVA: And if we compare Evanston to other cities that legalized recreational cannabis, Evanston’s distance requirements are quite large. San Francisco requires dispensaries to be within 600 feet from both schools and other dispensaries. Seattle requires 1,000 feet from schools and 350 feet away from other dispensaries. What do you make of that, Josh?

IRVINE: Well, I think we have to remember that Evanston is serving a far smaller and far less dense population. Seattle and San Francisco are both considerably larger and heavily populated cities. There is certainly a very limited set of locations within Evanston that one can establish a dispensary which is further limited by the number of public and private schools we have in the area, excluding Northwestern.

SRIVASTAVA: Alright, next point of concern: where can residents consume cannabis? Aldermen are still figuring out the details. At an Administration and Public Works Committee meeting earlier this month, Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) said it would be treated similarly to beer.

ANN RAINEY: Beer is legal, but you can’t drink a beer in your car. And you’re not going to be able to smoke a joint in your car, because it creates a sense, a different state of awareness.

SRIVASTAVA: On Monday, the Council voted on the legalization of cannabis in Evanston, as well as the city’s recreational cannabis tax rate of three percent. Josh, what is the tax on recreational cannabis going to look like?

IRVINE: Altogether between the sales tax that will be in effect in Evanston as of Jan. 1, which is 10.25 percent, along with state marijuana tax rates ranging from 10 to 25 percent, depending on the product, the county rate of three percent, and the Evanston rate of three percent, you are looking at a minimum rate of 26.25 percent with a maximum of a whopping 41.25 percent tax. That is for cannabis with a THC concentration at or greater than 35 percent.

SRIVASTAVA: Wow.

IRVINE: Another item on the docket is a resolution dictating that the entirety of revenues collected from that three percent tax will go to fund a newly created reparations fund.

SRIVASTAVA: That is until the fund reaches $10 million. Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th) mentioned the resolution at an Oct. 14 City Council meeting.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: Alderman Rainey had a recommendation that we consider using the new tax revenue from the recreational marijuana use. One hundred percent of that for our reparations. And considering the impact of over-policing and poor policing as it relates to marijuana use specifically, and that being mostly damaging the black community, I think that it’s an appropriate use of those funds as we generate revenue.

SRIVASTAVA: That’s the recreational cannabis rundown. I’m Heena Srivastava, and this is Everything Evanston. Thanks for listening.

KALEN LUCIANO: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Kalen Luciano. In this segment, we follow the story of Mike Williams. He’s a resident of Over The Rainbow, an organization dedicated to providing independent and affordable housing for people with physical disabilities in Northern Illinois. Mike lives at the Evanston location. Here’s the story of how he got there and what Over The Rainbow does.

MIKE WILLIAMS: It was a weird night, you know, weird day. When it happened, you know, you don’t really know what happened, what’s going on. Everybody starts reacting. You see blood, and you started wondering, “Okay, this is not good.” The chaos is ensuing. People are running around, and you’re not able to move. You realize you have been hit.

LUCIANO: In November of 2009, Mike was shot while on duty as a security guard at a bar in Atlanta. When the paramedics got there, they took him to a nearby hospital where he went into a coma. He came out of it about four months after being shot.

WILLIAMS: One of the first things I remember, they were talking about the earthquake in Haiti. And I didn’t realize I was, you know, had been out that long. Your memory’s not as good, and you’re wondering what’s — what happened? What’s going on? You wonder why you can’t move a certain way. You wonder why your legs hurt. You wake up. Now, you’re wondering why you can’t move, and then doctors start telling you as to what’s going on with you. It’s brutal, man, to realize you can’t do what you used to.

LUCIANO: Before becoming a security guard, Mike was a professional basketball player. He didn’t just lose the ability to walk — he also lost a piece of his past.

WILLIAMS: I think about it all the — you know — every day ‘cause the results of that shooting I have to live with. So for me, it’s a daily reminder of what happened. It never goes away. You know, you just try to get by it and be thankful that, you know, things could have been worse.

LUCIANO: Mike received eight surgeries in two and a half years to recover from the shooting. After each one, he went through intense physical therapy.

WILLIAMS: Every day, it’s a challenge. Every day is a challenge. Fortunately, for me, you know, my sports background allow me to take physical pain and get through things, the training and things I’ve done over the years. I always loved to be physical, so it was no problem for me. It was just the bulls–t of going through it for no reason, you know?

LUCIANO: It was hard for Mike to accept what happened to him, but he kept pushing himself to go to rehab.

WILLIAMS: Once you go to rehab, you see others that are rehabbing as well, for whatever condition they have, and they’re struggling. They let the pain on their faces, and you realize you’re kind of like, well, we’re all in this s–t hole together. So we try to make each other feel better, you know, encouraging each other that, you know, “Hey, get through it, get through it.”

LUCIANO: Even after rehab, Mike left the hospital with a disability that left him in a wheelchair. This changed what going back home meant for him.

WILLIAMS: Your house you grew up in as a kid, it’s not conducive to you now that you’re in a wheelchair. So now what? Does your family rehab the whole house? Do they put a ramp? Do they make the doors wider to your bedroom? All these things have to come into play. So now you’re looking at if you’re going to be in that house, you’ll want to rehab that house to make it adequate for the person that’s here. I don’t know. Some people can’t do that, you know?

LUCIANO: When Mike found himself in this position, his patient advocate told him about Over The Rainbow. Eric Huffman, the president of Over The Rainbow, said all of the apartment buildings are designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

ERIC HUFFMAN: It’s extremely easy for somebody, especially who’s in a wheelchair, to get around. Our buildings are completely barrier free. The bathrooms have roll in showers, and also a five foot turning radius so that even the largest of wheelchairs can function very well inside those bathrooms. All the switches are front loaded: the fan, the light, everything’s front loaded. So even with a very limited range of motion, somebody can operate anything in their kitchen. The refrigerators have great big handles on them. In the corners of the cabinets, we build in lazy Susan’s so that somebody who can’t reach very high who’s in a wheelchair can actually put their food up on a higher level and store more food. Very interesting history that this place has.

LUCIANO: Over The Rainbow was founded in 1974 by parents of people with disabilities. Their children had gone through high school but had trouble finding accessible housing after graduation. They felt like their children could live independently, so they wanted to try to build something that could house them.

In the state of Illinois alone, there were over 150,000 people with disabilities living solely or primarily on Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, in 2016. SSI provides $733 per month, but on average, they would need to pay 122% of this monthly income to rent for a one-bedroom apartment. Over The Rainbow subsidizes rent to provide affordable housing for people with disabilities while also freeing up their income to live independently. But in a population of hundreds of thousands of people in need of this type of housing, it can only make a small dent in the problem.

HUFFMAN: So many people in the state of Illinois but really across the country end up having to live in nursing homes because there’s no other alternative for them, so we decided to provide that alternative. We could build 10 times as many units in Illinois and still not fulfill the market that’s out there. Unfortunately, they are thousands of people live in institutions today that really don’t need to do that, but that’s their only alternative.

LUCIANO: Over The Rainbow attempts to provide an alternative to this and to improve this option for people with disabilities. At the Evanston location, the organization has collaborated with Northwestern University on technology that makes the building more accessible for people with disabilities. But even with this advantage, the building also has a unique challenge and history.

HUFFMAN: It was the Evanston Community Hospital back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. It was abandoned after it went out of business, and we took it over in the late ‘80s and then developed 33 apartments here and it opened in 1990. The hospital originally had 66 hospital rooms, so we essentially did kind of one for two. We tore down the walls and everything like that to add square footage. Some of them are fairly large. They’re all one bedroom apartments. I think what we struggle with here is because this was a hospital, it has a somewhat institutional look to it. The other buildings are much more apartment looking like and much more modern.

LUCIANO: The building’s location also conflicts with one of the organization’s most important goals: independent living. People who live at an Over The Rainbow building are supposed to shop and take care of themselves. For this to work, the location needs to be close to essential services and amenities.

HUFFMAN: Our Evanston location, although we love it and it’s wonderful, is one of the worst locations we have. It’s a mile, two, I think, to the Jewel. The Walgreens is about .6 of a mile away. So that’s too far as far as we’re concerned.

LUCIANO: Still, for those who can access their services and buildings, Over The Rainbow provides more than just a place to live.

HUFFMAN: This is an apartment community. It’s independent living. People control their own destinies, and they do their own shopping and they have their own doctors. And if they need personal care, they hire their own people to do that. So we think there’s a lot of dignity in the independence that we provide for people.

LUCIANO: For Mike, living here gives him a sense of community and gives him a constant reminder to keep going.

WILLIAMS: There’s others that are dealing with their own situations, and you can kind of get depressed a little bit while you’re in your room because, you know, things and time is flying by and you’re not involved in stuff. And then you go out of your room and you see your neighbor who’s in a chair doing the same thing you are. So, you know, one moment you feel good, and you go out the door and you see your neighbor who’s struggling just as much as you are and it brings it all back. You know, my situation is not as bad. So, you kind of have to get over yourself. It’s not like “Woe is me, woe is me” anymore. It’s more of a, “We’re in this together, let’s try to make it happen,” you know?

LUCIANO: And if you’re a sports fan and want to learn more about Mike Williams’ career, he has one piece of advice for you.

WILLIAMS: YouTube me, man. YouTube me, baby. Wikipedia me. Google me, man. Google me.

LUCIANO: Thanks for listening. I’m Kalen Luciano, and this is Everything Evanston.

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