Illinois tweaked how business owners seeking recreational marijuana licenses can apply following complaints that the process favored politically connected and rich applicants over minorities and veterans who were supposed to benefit.
Recreational marijuana sales started in January under an Illinois law that, like similar efforts elsewhere, was touted for so-called social equity provisions designed to address racial disparities and other inequities in the decadeslong war on drugs. Black Illinois residents are seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white residents, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
However, some applicants for pot shops and state legislators said minorities and veterans were still being shut out under the complex point-based application process where only those with a perfect score would be allowed a shot at licenses. The first licenses to sell and grow recreational cannabis were given to existing medical marijuana companies.
Of more than 700 applicants, just 21 finalists got perfect scores to qualify for the lottery to win 75 licenses. Some criteria included having environmentally friendly plans and having at least 51% of the organization owned by minorities or veterans. Applicants can seek multiple licenses.
Some applicants said they were rejected in the expensive process even after meeting the criteria. Two Black-owned businesses that were passed over sued, saying only “politically-connected insider companies” won lottery spots and alleging scoring inconsistencies.
Under procedures announced Monday, rejected applicants will get a second chance to apply after the state notifies them of any “deficiencies" in their applications.
“When we heard significant concerns from numerous stakeholders about the process to award dispensary licenses, I said we needed to take a pause to fix their concerns, within the bounds of our landmark law,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker sad in a statement. “We believe that these new steps will inject more equity and fairness in the first round of license awards and provide insight as we improve the process for future rounds.”
Pritzker, a first-term Democrat, was expected to discuss the changes at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.
Applicant Jermell Chavis, a Black former Marine from Chicago who missed the 252 perfect score by three points, remained skeptical.
“It’s kind of bittersweet because now you have to go into a lottery,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “And who’s to say the lottery is going to be anything like fair?”
After the licenses are granted, the state must conduct a disparity study as part of the recreational marijuana law.
Already, thousands of low-level marijuana convictions have been expunged under the law, which also earmarks some revenue for neighborhood development.
Sales for recreational marijuana in the first six months of the year topped $239 million, exceeding state projections. Illinois collected nearly $53 million in tax revenue during that time, according to Pritzker's office.