New incubator to help owners of color crack into white-dominated cannabis industry in Illinois

“There’s an opportunity to make this industry more diverse and more integrated,” said Cresco CEO Charlie Bachtell.

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Dominique Coronel, a first generation Mexican immigrant, runs Green Goddess, which has been tapped to join Cresco Labs’ incubator for small pot firms.

Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

An incubator program launched Wednesday is designed to help dozens of social equity applicants crack into the state’s increasingly competitive cannabis industry — and some groups could get up to $100,000 in seed money to help their businesses.

During a news conference in Grand Crossing announcing the incubator, River North-based Cresco Labs CEO Charlie Bachtell acknowledged that marijuana enforcement has historically had a damaging impact on minority communities but said legalization could serve “as a catalyst for some incredible, positive change.”

“There’s an opportunity to make this industry more diverse and more integrated,” said Bachtell, who is among the white men who currently dominate the Illinois pot business.

Cresco’s incubator program, which is an offshoot of its overarching Social Equity and Educational Development Initiative, will first assist 35 groups applying for the next round of 75 dispensary licenses that will be doled out by the state in May. Under the state legalization law, individuals can get an edge in the application process by qualifying as social equity applicants if they’ve been arrested for or convicted of a pot-related offense or have lived in an area that’s been “disproportionately impacted” by past drug policies.

Cresco currently operates three cultivation centers and five medical dispensaries in the state. The multi-state company, which has already won licenses to grow recreational pot at its cultivation facilities, now plans to convert its existing Illinois dispensaries into dual-use stores and open five more recreational shops.

The establishment of the program helps Cresco meet certain application requirements in its own bid to obtain new pot licenses and entitles the company to a 10% stake in the companies it incubates.

Bachtell noted that the initial phase of the program “provides qualifying applicants the resources, the knowledge, the guidance [and] the tools to be able to fill out this application.”

“These applications can be hundreds of pages in length,” Bachtell noted. “They want to know about your security plan, your staffing plan, your dispensing plan, and they also want to know about you.”

Dominique Coronel, a first generation Mexican immigrant tapped to join the incubator, explained to reporters that he was “orphaned by the war on drugs.”

After his addict mother left his family, Coronel’s father was arrested during a DEA raid and sent to prison when the boy was just 7 years old. Years later, Coronel was caught with a large amount of marijuana in Wisconsin and was briefly jailed.

“My story is not unique. It is the story of black and brown youth on the South and West sides of Chicago,” he said, noting the violence also caused by the drug cartels south of hte border. “It is the story of so many suffering souls,” said Coronel.

Less than two years ago, Coronel was living on the street and struggling to survive. Now, the 23-year-old attends DePaul University and hopes to become the youngest person to win a social equity-related license in Illinois.

Coronel’s company Green Goddess is among the groups involved in the program, which has 130 individual participants.

Once state regulators hand out the next dispensary licenses, Cresco will continue to shepherd certain groups through “every stage of the business process” by offering operational support and assistance with site selection, regulation and compliance, according to a statement from the company.

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