Jackpot: Cannabis dispensary lotteries set to kick off Thursday after lengthy delays


The location represents the first cannabis retail shop to open near downtown Chicago and the first recreational-use only dispensary in the city. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Jordan Davis, a wellness advisor, shows products to a 55-year-old man from River North as he makes the second purchase at Cresco Labs’ seventh Sunnyside dispensary at 436 N. Clark St. on the store’s opening day in River North, Thursday morning, May 28, 2020. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

If all goes as planned — which until now, little has with the licensing process — the drawing will mark the beginning of the end of a lengthy imbroglio that has marred Gov. Pritzker’s first term in office. 

After a year of turmoil, Illinois is finally on the verge of dishing out precious new permits to operate recreational pot shops.

The first of three lotteries for 185 total dispensary licenses is set for Thursday, with the others scheduled next month. On Wednesday, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation is expected to announce the finalists for the first lottery, which will determine the winners of 55 licenses.

The Illinois Lottery is conducting all the drawings, but they won’t play out like the traditional televised segments with balls bouncing around a tumbler. Instead, an automated computer system will identify random numbers previously assigned to applicants.

After a series of audits, the results will be sent to the IDFPR, which will match the winning numbers with the corresponding applicants and make the results public later in the day.

If all goes as planned — which has largely not happened with the licensing process so far — Thursday’s lottery will mark the beginning of the end of a lengthy imbroglio that has marred Pritzker’s first term in office.

After campaigning to lift Illinois’ prohibition on recreational pot, he signed the legalization law to great fanfare, effectively giving the cash-strapped state a new and reliable source of revenue. But perhaps most notably, the law sought to address the lasting harms of the drug war and to diversify the state’s white-dominated cannabis industry by prioritizing licenses to so-called social equity applicants.

The licensing rollout came to a grinding halt last September, when state officials announced that just 21 of the more than 700 applicant groups had earned spots in a lottery for 75 long-delayed dispensary permits.

The move set off a round of protests and lawsuits over the grading process, as well as intense scrutiny of the firms tapped for the lottery, some of which include white partners with political connections and deep pockets. That revelation caused much consternation among jilted minority applicants, who claimed state officials had fallen woefully short of their lofty diversity goals.

Pritzker’s administration ultimately bowed to the pressure, and he announced a supplementary scoring process aimed at expanding the pool of finalists.

Efforts to create additional licenses later gained traction earlier this year, when a group of social equity applicants banded together and helped state Rep. La Shawn Ford draft legislation to that end. The bill, which added 110 new licenses, sailed through the General Assembly and Pritzker signed off on it earlier this month, the same day officials announced the lotteries to dish out all the new permits.

Thursday’s drawing for 55 licenses created under the new law will include applicant groups that receive 85% of the total applicant points.

The lottery will include firms that qualified as social equity applicants through a controversial provision of the legalization law derided by critics as the “slave-master clause.” Under that provision, groups earned crucial social equity points by hiring a workforce made up of individuals who qualify for that designation, either by living in an area ravaged by past drug policies of having a pot offense on their records.

The second lottery, set for Aug. 5, includes groups that meet the same scoring threshold and have a majority owner that checks one of those two boxes. The final lottery, scheduled for Aug. 19, is for the 75 delayed licenses, which will all go to applicant groups that earned perfect scores.

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July 28, 2021 at 12:58PM

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