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The Medical Marijuana Wait Continues

The number one vote-getter to grow medical marijuana in Illinois says he is “humbled” to learn that his company’s scores were the highest in the state

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Hundreds of people spent thousands of dollars to buy into Illinois’ highly-anticipated medical marijuana program. Tonight we learn which of them made the shortlist to grow pot for profit. And make no mistake – they stand to earn millions. NBC Chicago’s Phil Rogers investigates. (Published Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015)

    The number one vote-getter to grow medical marijuana in Illinois says he is “humbled” to learn that his company’s scores were the highest in the state.

    During the confidential scoring process, Dominic Sergi’s Cresco Labs LLC was rated as the best applicant in state police districts 5, 9, and 21. And the ratings they received from state evaluators, were the highest of any applicant statewide.

    “We’re just very honored that we got the three highest scores in the state,” Sergi says. “We put a lot of time, energy and money into our application, and we’re encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.”

    It requires a bit of tea-leaf-reading to determine what those scores might mean. Confidential emails released this week by the Governor’s office show that despite the scores, two of the districts where Cresco was successful were still being evaluated, according to draft press releases which were never issued. In the end, the Quinn administration never issued licenses to any applicants, passing that task on to their successor, Bruce Rauner.

    Still, the scores suggest Cresco’s approach impressed evaluators from the Illinois Department of Agriculture enough, at least at some point, that they were given the state’s highest ratings.

    “We’re just very honored, and very humbled, that we got the highest scores in the state,” Sergi says.

    While details of cannabis applications remain confidential, it is known from zoning presentations in District 9 that Cresco proposed a revenue sharing plan, where the company would contribute half a percent of gross revenues to the coffers of each of the district’s seven counties. (District 9 includes Sangamon, Logan, Cass, Menard, Morgan, and Christian counties). Some critics, notably the State Journal Register newspaper in Springfield, blasted the plan as an effort to “buy” a state-sanctioned license. Sergi counters that it was simply an effort to give back to local communities, some of which are struggling financially.

    “We felt it was very important to be a part of the communities we were in,” he said. “and to make sure that we were entrenched in those communities, and make sure it was part of our community benefits program.”

    It isn’t known if other applicants made similar proposals.

    The potential for a financial windfall for any of the applicants is, or course, enormous. In their proposal, Cresco guaranteed at minimum, at least $25,000 in revenue-sharing with the local counties.

    “The state’s guidelines clearly outlined the need for community involvement and support,” said another member of the Cresco team. “Instead of having the local communities be reluctant to have a medical marijuana cultivation facility, we wanted them to be partners and benefit financially from the success of a community business.”

    Of course, all of this is dependent on the program moving forward, and by all outward signs, right now it is not. Rauner’s office says it is reviewing the medical marijuana program and will take legal concerns that might come out of that review to Attorney General Lisa Madigan for evaluation.

    Emails released by Rauner’s office this week, show that the program was buffeted by indecision and wildly divergent scenarios during the waning days of the Quinn administration.

    For example, on January 5, three different draft press releases were proposed, from one announcing the awarding of licenses for at least 18 cultivation centers and 57 dispensaries, to a decision to kick the entire program to Rauner just three hours later.

    After that, it appears the license awards were back in and out several times.

    On January 8th, Health Department spokesman Melaney Arnold advised colleagues of her schedule, “in the event an announcement is made this weekend.”

    The following day, Robert Morgan, chief of the medical cannabis program advised staffers, “nothing planned for the weekend right now.”

    The discussions about what to do continued right up to inauguration eve. At 5:17pm, another draft list of cultivation centers was prepared. An hour and 21 minutes later, in an email of “talking points”, Morgan advised, “I’m now hearing we may be again just doing (marijuana) advisory board and not cultivation centers. We’ll need a statement ready for that too…”

    The following morning, Quinn’s office announced through Sun Times columnist Michael Sneed that licensing had been put on hold, and passed on to the new governor. At 6:43 a.m., Morgan told colleagues, “I am so sorry. I was not made aware of this statement before it went out.”

    Twenty eight minutes later, Arnold, the Health Department spokesman, delivered a similar sentiment. “I feel like I am way out of the loop,” she said, “and I’m sure my phone will start ringing off the hook.”

    With the seconds ticking before Rauner took the oath of office, press staffer Grant Klinzman wrote at 10:29 a.m., “Governor, we would like to sign the medical cannabis bill as soon as possible…”.

    That draft, on which he was urging the governor’s signature, and which Quinn would sign and release a short time later, did not include action on the licenses. Rather, it made clarifications in the pilot program relating to sanctions available for enforcement, and a change relating to enforcement of the vehicle code. And Quinn encouraged a number of future changes, including removal of a provision calling for criminal background checks for patients.

    But no licenses were issued.

    On Monday, a senior Quinn administration official said that in the end, it was determined there was still too much to be done. In that official’s words, “The governor wanted to make sure it was not pushed out the door,” and Quinn made a decision that he did not want to issue only a partial list of licenses.

    No one in the Rauner camp will elaborate on what stood out which held up the process. Requests to interview director Morgan have been declined, and when asked for clarification on what problems had been detected, a Rauner spokesman said Tuesday, “I cannot comment further right now.”

    That mean applicants who now know the scored highly and likely would have received licenses have no choice but to wait.

    “You know, we’re encouraged by the administration and the state that it’s going to get done,” Sergi said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

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