Legalization includes an exemption to the Smoke-Free Illinois Act ban on indoor smoking, letting cities decide whether to allow on-site use at bars, restaurants, theaters, even new cannabis smoke lounges.
By Tom Schuba
Jun 28, 2019
Since 2008, it’s been illegal to smoke indoors at most public places in Illinois. But smoking could once again be allowed at bars, restaurants, coffee shops and other businesses, even new cannabis smoke lounges and weed-friendly movie theaters and concert venues – if local officials approve that.
That’s under a largely overlooked provision of the new Illinois law legalizing recreational marijuana use and sales.
The law legalizing the recreational use of marijuana beginning Jan. 1 provides an exemption to the Smoke-Free Illinois Act that banned smoking at workplaces and most public places because of the health threat of secondhand smoke. A similar exemption already was in place for cigar lounges.
That means smoking once again could become commonplace at public places in Illinois, according to the law’s chief sponsor – but only of marijuana, not tobacco, which remains largely banned at workplaces and businesses.
Surprised to hear that, health advocates say allowing more smoking of any kind in indoor public places is a bad idea.
“This is a step backwards for the health of the people of Illinois,” says Kathy Drea, head of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Illinois.
Joel Africk, president and chief executive of the Respiratory Health Association, a Chicago advocacy group, says “it is critical for everyone’s safety and well-being – especially those living with lung diseases – that the state maintains the protections outlined in existing smoke-free and clean air acts.”
State Sen. Steve McClure, R-Jacksonville, one of only six conservatives who voted to legalize cannabis, says he thought the law lets local governments allow consumption only at state-licensed cannabis facilities.
“If [the sponsors] had told me that you can smoke cannabis in public places – including bars, restaurants, etcetera – I would’ve definitely voted no,” says McClure, noting that his mother died of lung cancer from secondhand smoke. “They should’ve made that intent clear to everyone.”
Under the new law, weed use also could be allowed, at the places where marijuana is grown and sold – the state-licensed cannabis cultivation centers and dispensaries – if local authorities approve.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, the architect of the law legalizing recreational marijuana, says she and her colleagues in Springfield decided that social consumption of marijuana would be allowed but that the state wouldn’t license that, leaving it up to local officials.
She says it “felt like it made the most sense for them to be able to figure that out as it suits their communities. It’s really about licensing social consumption spaces, and that’s left very open for locals to determine what they want that to look like.”
Cassidy says the law allows local governments to determine whether to grant on-site consumption licenses to existing businesses as well as to new, standalone establishments that could function like hookah bars. If municipal officials want it, they could allow, for instance, movie patrons to light up in theaters.
They also could choose instead to limit consumption to vapes and edibles but not allow smoking, according to Cassidy.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office won’t say whether she plans to push to allow those sorts of businesses in Chicago or discuss how the licensing process will work, only that city officials will be working “to ensure this legislation is not only rolled out safely and equitably throughout Chicago but also enhances our local economy and community businesses while prioritizing public safety.”
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an advocacy group based in Virginia that opposes marijuana legalization efforts nationwide, says he expects to see “huge local community pushback” once people realize how far Illinois’ law goes.
“If you told public health advocates 10 years ago that, in 10 years, we’re gonna have any exemptions” to the ban on indoor smoking in public places, “you’d get laughed out of the building,” Sabet says. “They went way too far on this bill.”
Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says he expects that Illinois legislators probably will end up looking at public pot use again at some point.
“After a few years, when the tolerance level towards cannabis consumption in general is a little more accepting, you might be able to find the General Assembly having enough votes to pass something that does have a specific license that the state would be awarding to these types of businesses,” Linn says.
Elsewhere, Colorado plans to begin granting public consumption licenses to hospitality establishments that will require local approval, and some of those places also will be able to sell the drug, according to Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project.
In California, a legislative proposal would allow for state-licensed cannabis cafes and lounges. Alaska recently agreed to allow municipalities to approve these types of businesses. Nevada plans to allow local governments to grant social consumption licenses.