State urged to start awarding new pot licenses in next 30 days, with hopes shops could open by the fall

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State Representative La Shawn Ford speaks at a press conference held by a coalition of cannabis social equity applicants for marijuana licenses on June 2, 2021 | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
State Representative La Shawn Ford speaks at a press conference held by a coalition of cannabis social equity applicants for marijuana licenses on June 2, 2021 | Brian Rich/Sun-Times | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The governor’s chief cannabis adviser said issuing the licenses for up to 190 new shops could be done quickly.

Minority applicants looking to break into Illinois’ lily-white cannabis industry urged Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday to start dishing out 190 planned pot shop licenses in the next 30 days — a timeline the governor’s chief cannabis adviser said is almost within reach.

Rickey Hendon, a former state senator and current applicant for dispensary licenses, made the request at a news conference lauding the passage of legislation that aims to resolve a lengthy cannabis licensing controversy and get permits into the hands of the so-called social equity applicants that legalization was intended to benefit.

“If the governor does that, then we can be in business by the fall,” Hendon said during the jovial event at MacArthur’s Restaurant in South Austin, where he was surrounded by state Rep. La Shawn Ford, Pritzker’s cannabis consigliere Toi Hutchinson and a group of minority applicants.

Rickey Hendon (left) speaks with Tyrone Muhammad (right) at a news conference held by a coalition of social equity applicants on June 2, 2021 | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Rickey Hendon (left) speaks with Tyrone Muhammad (right) at a news conference held by a coalition of social equity applicants on June 2, 2021

Pritzker has already committed to signing the new legislation, which updates the legalization law that he campaigned on passing.

Ford, who drafted the bill with help from Hendon and other social equity candidates, later told the Sun-Times that he supports the call for a swift turnaround — as long as the process is fair. And Hutchinson said Hendon’s goal is “close” to obtainable.

But first, Hutchinson said, she and other officials need to work out the logistics of holding multiple lotteries to issue the flood of new dispensary licenses.

Last September, regulators announced that just 21 groups earned the perfect scores to qualify for a long-delayed lottery to award the next 75 recreational dispensary licenses. The news prompted outrage among minority applicants who raised serious concerns about the grading process after it became clear that many of the top scoring groups included clouted and deep-pocketed individuals.

Ultimately, that outrage resulted in a series of lawsuits that effectively upended the process and the first lottery was halted.

The bill awaiting Pritzker’s signature now looks to appease the jilted hopefuls by giving them a shot to win more licenses in lotteries that require a lower threshold and, in some cases, tighter qualifications favoring those most impacted by the war on drugs.

The measure most notably creates 110 additional recreational dispensary licenses that will be split into two separate drawings, which will be held in addition to the lottery that was halted. On top of that, another drawing will hand out five unissued dispensary permits that will allow the winners to sell both medical and adult-use cannabis and open an additional store for recreational sales.

During Wednesday’s news conference, Ford pressed Pritzker to release those five licenses as soon as the state finishes re-scoring applications. Hutchinson, however, said the priority is holding the three other lotteries first.

In any event, both Ford and Hutchinson agreed that it’s important to expeditiously dole out the new licenses to mitigate the risk of facing more lawsuits.

“The governor wants to do that so that there’s no chance,” Ford said. “Because once you get the licenses out, there’s no taking them back.”

Toi Hutchinson talks to reporters about the sale of cannabis in Illinois at the Thompson Center Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Toi Hutchinson talks to reporters about the sale of cannabis in Illinois at the Thompson Center Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.

Lawsuits complicate process

Still, pending lawsuits continue to loom over the process.

“There will be things that we have to do to handle that reality,” Hutchinson said during an interview. “And that’s all tied to the first lottery.”

Two lawyers representing dispensary applicants in separate cases said they don’t have any immediate plans to drop their lawsuits based on the new legislation.

Irina Dashevsky filed suit last September in Sangamon County on behalf of a group of applicants who claim it’s unconstitutional for the state to award extra application points to military veterans. Dashevsky said Ford’s bill isn’t ideal, though she plans to gauge her clients’ response to the proposed fix.

“I think, overall, it’s a solution, and it was a hard one to get this far,” she said. “And I think everyone has fatigue and would like to see this segment of the industry get going. It’s very possible that some clients are fine with this and don’t want to litigate anymore. And some might have the appetite to keep fighting.”

Meanwhile, regulators are now in the final phases of a supplementary scoring effort that will allow officials to unleash all the delayed pot permits, including those to grow, transport and infuse cannabis products. But given the earlier scoring issues, Hutchinson said officials are now “hovering over this process to make sure that those things don’t happen again.”

“It is our intention that this law live up to its promise,” said Hutchinson, a former state senator who co-sponsored the legalization law. “This industry is going to change and it’s going to look different.”

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June 2, 2021 at 05:09PM

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