Illinois is far from social equity in cannabis market

If legislators give social equity legislation the attention it deserves, Illinois can begin to fulfill the promises of equity and justice.

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Material for rolling a cannabis joint.

Preparation for rolling a cannabis joint.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In 2020, Illinois passed a widely anticipated cannabis social equity program. The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act was drafted “in the interest of remedying the harms resulting from the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis-related laws,” offering “financial assistance and license application benefits” to social equity applicants.

Two years later, Black and Brown cannabis licensees are not able to use their licenses due to court-related litigation. Aside from correcting the state’s faulty execution of the licensing application process, there has been no substantive cannabis legislation enacted since 2019, leaving the promises of equity and justice unfulfilled. 

In 2021, our alliance (including Cannabis Equity IL Coalition, Chicago NORML — National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — former state senator Rickey Hendon and several ancillary small businesses) drafted cannabis policies to create a healthy environment for social equity businesses.

We uncovered additional barriers for cannabis industry hopefuls at all levels.

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Throughout the summer, we sponsored webinars to educate Illinois legislators, creating presentations, securing subject matter experts, and contacting legislators. Unfortunately, the legislators have not made progress on legislation necessary to support social equity and diversity in the industry. 

We hope legislators will work to open new businesses, create jobs and generate millions of dollars of revenue by supporting the expansion of cannabis equity and justice. We call for lawmakers to commit to a long-term solution for the Illinois cannabis program, including legislation related to social consumption; entrepreneurial support; employee badging; and transparency, accountability, and authority. 

Social consumption

Illinoisans are still criminalized for cannabis consumption simply because there are few places to legally consume. We drafted HB5570 so entrepreneurs can obtain state-approved cannabis consumption lounges and special event permits. This will create spaces to legally consume cannabis, reduce criminalization, empower entrepreneurs, create jobs, and increase tax revenue. 

Entrepreneur support

Newly licensed craft growers and transporters are unable to scale their businesses to compete in the current and established all-white-dominated marketplace. We supported HB4097, which allows craft grow licensees to immediately expand their growing capacity to be more competitive. We also supported an amendment to HB3799 to ensure fair contracts for new transportation licensees.

Employee badging

Cannabis employment candidates do not have a standardized and expedited badging process or an appeals process if they are denied the Agent ID badge necessary to work in the industry. We drafted HB5457 to address the inconsistencies of the current unfair hiring practices.

Transparency, accountability, authority

There is limited accountability and transparency because the cannabis program is managed by disparate personnel from 13 state agencies. To increase transparency in cannabis-related decision-making and provide greater support for entrepreneurs, patients, and employees, we supported HB5710 to create a centralized cannabis authority.

None of these bills were advanced in the shortened 2022 legislative session. Lawmakers felt unprepared to vote on cannabis legislation, despite our efforts to educate them on the important issues. We are overwhelmingly disappointed, but not surprised that the Cannabis Business Industry Association of Illinois was not supportive of new cannabis legislation, and their leadership’s ties to Springfield are a major cause for concern. 

If meaningful cannabis legislation does not pass in 2022, Illinois’ “gold standard cannabis program” will fall even further behind in its goals to support the very communities it was supposed to benefit, and lawmakers will continue to break their promises from 2019. 

Opinion Newsletter

Passing meaningful cannabis legislation in 2022 is a critical component for creating a healthier marketplace where minority business owners can thrive. If you are a community member who cares about cannabis justice, call your state senator and representative and demand their support for comprehensive cannabis legislation this year. If you are a legislator, there are several things you can do: 

  • Meet with our organizations to shape a long-term vision for Illinois’ cannabis program. 
  • Call a special session this summer to address cannabis legislation. 
  • Commit to devoting meaningful time to cannabis throughout the summer and during veto session in the fall.

If legislators give social equity legislation the attention it deserves, Illinois can begin to fulfill the promises of equity and justice. We call on the governor and Illinois legislators to prioritize equity in cannabis and pass legislation on social consumption, entrepreneur support, employee badging, and transparency, accountability, and authority legislation. 

Send letters to

Kiana Hughes is the executive director of Chicago NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

Doug Kelly is the executive director of Cannabis Equity IL Coalition

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