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Social equity cannabis entrepreneurs say Illinois’ regulatory process continues to delay their store openings

Marijuana plants growing under a purple light in a lab in Joliet, Illinois.
Manuel Martinez
/
WBEZ
Marijuana plants inside the Cresco Labs Marijuana Cultivation Center in Joliet.

Cannabis isn’t typically on the agenda at the City Club of Chicago.

“I looked in the room and I said, ‘We got a light room today! What, people didn’t wanna talk about weed?’ I didn’t get that,” exclaimed Club Chair Jacki Robinson-Ivy as she looked around the unusually sparsely populated banquet hall at Maggiano’s in River North on Nov. 3.

“I’m hoping that the continuation of this conversation, of which I’m sure there will be one, will be an overly packed room. I’m more than confident in that,” she said.

Cannabis in Illinois: Understanding Social Equity Cannabis brought together panelists who are trying to make it in the state’s recreational cannabis industry. They’re frustrated by their own experiences and advocating for others as Illinois tries to diversify ownership of cannabis businesses.

Lisbeth Vargas Jaimes, executive director of the Illinois Independent Craft Growers Association, said many social equity license holders are on the verge of failure because the process has been mired in red tape and delays.

“We stand to lose a lot,” Vargas Jaimes said. “The idea of social equity being successful… Gov. Pritzker in his debate saying, ‘Hey, people are opening up shops, people are getting loans.’ That is not the case.”

Recreational cannabis became legal in Illinois in January 2020. At the time of the law’s passage, it was touted as among the most progressive programs in the nation — promising that people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs would have a clear path toward success in the industry.

But during the first years of the program, the only companies successfully operating cultivation centers or dispensaries were those who got in during the pilot program for medical marijuana — when social equity rules hadn’t yet been established.

A week after Vargas Jaimes spoke at the City Club luncheon, the governor’s office announced the immediate issuance of $8.75 million in fully forgivable state-funded loans to social equity license holders. The state also announced two social equity dispensaries have been cleared to open: Green Rose Dispensary in River North and Ivy Hall in Wicker Park. Both stores are now operating.

But it’s been two-and-a-half years since the state was supposed to start issuing conditional licenses. Nearly 200 such licenses have been issued so far through the lotteries held in 2021 and 2022, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, all of which went to social equity applicants.

Vargas Jaimes said there’s a lot of work still to be done and there are few people who can do that.

“Right now, I think it’s [calling] our state legislature and everybody who is involved in [it and] wants to see the success. Because we have to refute the status quo,” she said.

Customers crowd around tables and glass display cases showing cannabis products at a dispensary in Chicago.
Manuel Martinez
/
WBEZ
Customers view cannabis products in display cases at Dispensary 33 on Chicago’s North Side as legal marijuana sales begin in Illinois on New Year’s Day, 2020.

The Illinois Legislature’s fall veto session begins Nov. 15. Lawmakers are scheduled to be in Springfield from Nov. 15 through 17, and again from Nov. 29 through Dec. 1. This two-year General Assembly is drawing to a close. A new set of lawmakers will be sworn in on Jan. 11, so this group will likely finish its work on Jan. 10. Once that happens, any bill introduced dies and if a re-elected lawmaker wants to try passing something again, they’ll have to start all over.

There are some proposals dealing with cannabis issues that could theoretically still pass within a couple months, and though that’s unlikely, at least one lawmaker is still hopeful.

A bill (HB3415) sponsored by state Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago, would create a Cannabis Control Commission with seven governor-appointed members and an executive director. It would assume the functions of various state agencies that handle specific components of cannabis regulation.

Right now, a person may have to go to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to seek a dispensary license. But if they want a license for a 5,000- to 14,000-square-foot craft grow facility or 210,000-square-foot cultivation center? That’s the Department of Agriculture. The Department of Revenue handles cannabis income.

“Just think about the folks who did not apply [for a license],” Evans said. “Maybe they were confused by the process. “Sometimes in government, we can make things easy, just by making them easy. You know, it’s not complicated.”

He introduced his measure in February 2021, a few weeks after the current group of lawmakers was sworn in. But it’s been in the House Rules Committee since March, languishing with thousands of other bills that typically don’t see the light of day.

Akele Parnell, CEO of Umi Farms and also a board member of Chicago NORML, said a single commission would make sense.

“It would 100% help the licensees, and I think the consumers,” Parnell said of Evans’s bill. “There’s a one-stop shop for guidance on how to operate, guidance on what the product should look like, guidance on, you know, recalls and consumer complaints and just general information, as opposed to several different … government agencies with different processes and different approaches.”

Evans modeled the idea after other states’ programs. California has the Department of Cannabis Control, Michigan has the Cannabis Regulatory Agency and Washington state consolidates multiple industries into the Liquor and Cannabis Board.

His measure joins other cannabis-related bills stuck in legislative limbo that would:

There are additional bills covering other aspects of the fledgling cannabis industry.
As for the Cannabis Control Commission, Evans insists momentum is building.

“I think that’s up to me as a sponsor and other advocates — growing support, you know? That’s not always a bad thing to delay because you want good policy to be good, right?” Evans said.

Doug Kelly, executive director of Cannabis Equity Illinois, has seen plenty of delays already.

“In over three years, nothing has changed,” he told the City Club luncheon.

“The issues that we’re talking about now were there two years ago,” Kelly said. “We’re talking about basically the same issues over and over and over. Like I say, every [legislative] cycle there’s something that was more important than cannabis.”

Alex Degman is an Illinois statehouse reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @Alex_Degman

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.
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