Cannabis is becoming big business in Illinois, with some local pot companies emerging as national leaders after inking record-setting deals and starting to trade publicly in Canada, where marijuana was recently legalized. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are moving again to legalize recreational cannabis statewide — this time with the support of pro-pot Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker and powerful House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Many of those involved in these expanding efforts make up the Sun-Times’ list of the 10 most influential people in Illinois cannabis for 2018.
CEO and Co-Founder, Cresco Labs
Charlie Bachtell developed his “entrepreneurial spirit” while serving as general counsel at Guaranteed Rate.
Bachtell and two other Guaranteed Rate alums started Cresco Labs in 2015 after reviewing Illinois’ recently-passed medical cannabis law.
“How often does it come across your desk where you could develop something that changes the way that people think about medicine, changes the way that people think about criminal justice and criminal justice reform and then also it creates an interesting business opportunity not only for yourself but for the state and the community that you live in,” said Bachtell, a Berwyn native.
The River North-based pot firm now has operations in six states, with plans to expand to New York and Massachusetts. In October, Cresco began trading on the Canadian Securities Exchange after carrying out a reverse takeover of an existing company. The public offering comes on the heels of a $100 million private funding round, the second-largest for an American pot company.
Bachtell — who was recently appointed to the restorative justice and safe communities committee of Pritzker’s transition team — now hopes to grow the burgeoning brand into a national presence.
CEO and Founder, Green Thumb Industries
Ben Kovler has been a pot proponent since attending Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. In 1996, Kovler voted for Proposition 215, a ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana in the state.
Almost two decades later, Kovler started Green Thumb Industries. Headquartered in River North, the rapidly-expanding cannabis company now has eight manufacturing facilities and 60 dispensaries spread across eight states. Earlier this year, GTI raised $67 million after the company was listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange. According to Kovler, the company’s growth has happened “one step at a time.”
Kovler was drawn to the cannabis industry based on “how interesting of a puzzle and of a problem it is [to find] how and where the value is going to be created.”
“At the end of the day this is the entire full circle of an industry, which is really about improving people’s lives and offering them a choice, medically in the program in Illinois and broadly,” Kovler added.
CEO and Founder, Pharmacann
Teddy Scott recently brokered the largest acquisition in the history of the marijuana industry, selling Oak Park-based PharmaCann to touted California pot brand MedMen for $682 million in October.
Scott, a native Texan with a Ph.D in molecular physics, worked as an attorney for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies before building PharmaCann into a top player in the pot business. In 2014, Scott started the company after a friend told him that Illinois lawmakers had voted to legalize medical weed.
After obtaining licenses to grow and sell the drug in the state, PharmaCann has since expanded to seven others. The decision to sell the company to MedMen, Scott said, “was all about creating the leading company in the entire United States.”
“PharmaCann had quickly grown to over 250 employees with licenses in 8 states, but we needed to continue growing and at an even faster rate,” Scott said. “By doing the deal with MedMen, we are able to immediately grow and capture the next round of markets that we value the most – Florida, California and Nevada.”
CEO and Co-Founder, Verano Holdings
George Archos was encouraged to get into the medical cannabis industry after seeing the drug’s healing effects on a cousin with multiple sclerosis.
“I went into cannabis because it’s an opportunity that we saw to give relief to thousands of our citizens in Illinois,” said Archos, who grew up in the northwest suburbs.
After Illinois lawmakers made medical pot legal, Archos toured cannabis facilities in Colorado before applying for licenses to grow and sell pot in his home state. Archos noted that he was impressed with what he saw, but thought his team could do better.
He soon started Ataraxia, which now operates a cultivation facility in Albion and three dispensaries across the state.
In October, Ataraxia and several other existing cannabis operations were consolidated into Archos’ newly-minted pot firm Verano Holdings, which has also acquired another weed company. Verano, which recently raised $120 million in private funding, now licenses or controls four cultivation centers and six dispensaries in Illinois, Florida, Maryland and Nevada and has plans to expand to Puerto Rico and four other states.
“This transformative investment will fast-track our long-term goal to dominate the most important growth industry in the United States,” Archos said in an announcement.
Mark de Souza
CEO, Revolution Enterprises
Unlike other “ganjapreneurs” in the state, Mark de Souza didn’t start the company that he now runs.
De Souza, a Lane Tech graduate, spent over 30 years working at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange before more recently turning his focus to business acquisitions and hard asset investments.
The course of his career shifted when he was introduced in 2015 to Oleg Movchan, who was at the time raising capital to start Revolution Enterprises and now serves as the company’s deputy CEO and chief strategist. Later that year, de Souza made his first investment in Revolution before being tapped to serve as the company’s chief executive in 2016.
Revolution now runs the state’s two largest cultivation centers in Barry and Delavan. The facility in Delavan is currently undergoing a massive expansion as the company prepares to ramp up production to meet an expected increase in demand related to the recently-passed Alternatives to Opioids Act. The law, which gives opioid users temporary access to medical cannabis, is set to go into effect early next year.
Pritzker recently named de Souza to his transition team’s agricultural economy committee.
Chief Compliance Counsel, GTI and Founder, Illinois Women in Cannabis
Dina Rollman first grew interested in cannabis after reading a Sun-Times article about medical pot being legalized in Illinois in 2014.
“I pulled up the statute that had passed online and read it and my jaw pretty much dropped to the floor because Illinois had already mapped out what this industry was going to look like,” said Rollman, then a commercial litigator who had briefly worked in the Office of Executive Inspector General under incarcerated former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
A law partner then introduced Rollman to her brother, who was starting up GTI alongside his childhood friend Ben Kovler. Rollman helped Kovler and his team write applications for medical cannabis licenses in Illinois, and the fledgling company was initially selected in 2015 to operate three cultivation facilities and a dispensary.
After attending a series of meetings with GTI’s leadership team, Rollman founded Illinois Women in Cannabis when she realized she was often the only woman in the room. The nonprofit, which has about 150 active members, now holds networking and educational events that are designed to make women more aware of opportunities in the space.
Around the same time Rollman founded Illinois Women in Cannabis, the north suburban native started her own firm dedicated to cannabis law. She was eventually hired last year to serve as GTI’s chief compliance counsel, bringing her work with the company full circle.
Executive Director, Illinois NORML and General Manager, Maribis
Dan Linn has spent over a decade advocating for cannabis legalization by lobbying lawmakers in Springfield and giving speeches across the state.
During his time working with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the Marijuana Policy Project — the country’s most powerful pot advocacy groups — state lawmakers have legalized medical marijuana and started pushing recreational cannabis legislation.
After Illinois’ medical cannabis law was passed, Linn started a consulting firm to help prospective business owners obtain licenses, and he now manages a pair of Maribis dispensaries in Chicago and Springfield.
While the shift has made him “a target for people’s criticisms” — some of whom insist that his dual roles present a conflict of interest — Linn plans to continue lobbying for full-on legalization while also working for Maribis.
Founder, Chicago NORML
Donte Townsend started the Chicago chapter of NORML last year as a way to push for equity in the state’s predominantly-white pot industry.
Illinois currently has no black-owned medical dispensaries or cultivation centers. Townsend hopes cannabis legalization can both embolden black and brown entrepreneurs and spark reforms to the criminal justice system.
Aside from meeting with lawmakers, the nonprofit also offers services to communities that have been ravaged by the drug war, including dispensary and cultivation training and expungement seminars.
Townsend previously worked as a budtender at a Windy City Cannabis dispensary in south suburban Posen. He is now putting together an ownership group and finding investors to build and license a cultivation center in Illinois. He ultimately hopes to use some of the money from the endeavor to “help fix the city.”
“We just want our cut so we can revitalize our communities,” said Townsend.
Illinois State Representative (D-Chicago)
Kelly Cassidy was raised on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast in a “politically aware family.”
Cassidy’s father was an Irish immigrant and her mother was one of the first women admitted to the Coast Guard during World War II. Both parents encouraged her to vote and stay involved in politics.
Since moving to Illinois, Cassidy has lobbied on behalf of the National Organization for Women, worked for Senate President John Culluerton and served in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Cassidy and state Sen. Heather Steans have worked in tandem on a series of cannabis reform measures. The duo led the push to decriminalize pot in Illinois in 2016 and more recently introduced legislation last year to legalize the drug for adult use. Although their initial legalization efforts fell short, the pair will introduce new bills as early as January.
Illinois State Senator (D-Chicago)
Heather Steans wasn’t immediately sold on medical marijuana legalization when it was first being debated in Springfield.
“As I started paying attention to that as an issue and really delved into what I thought about it, I just ended up thinking it was the right public policy, primarily because I think prohibition has been such a non-workable solution,” Steans said. “I just don’t think prohibition serves anybody very well and it just doesn’t work.”
Steans has since become one of the state’s leading cannabis advocates, co-sponsoring legislation to decriminalize the drug and pushing again for full-on legalization with Rep. Kelly Cassidy.
Raised in River Woods and Bannockburn, Steans views as a “positive step” toward improving Illinois’ dire fiscal condition.
“I’m hoping that by the time I leave, we’re in much better fiscal shape,” Steans said. “That’s what I really care about.”
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