New marijuana dispensary licenses stalled again as Pritzker vows to ‘get ... it right’

A day after saying his administration was going to give losing applicants another chance, the governor said a new review process will ensure there are “as many people in that final lottery as deserve to be there.”

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

Sun-Times file photo

A day after giving losing applicants a second chance to qualify for a lottery to determine the winners of the next round of pot shop licenses, Gov. J.B. Pritzker declined Tuesday to give a date when the permits would be issued, only saying it would happen “this fall.”

Under heavy fire from scorned hopefuls and lawmakers, Pritzker on Monday announced that candidates who didn’t receive perfect scores would be able to revise their applications and challenge the grades they received from the state. Only 21 of more than 900 applicants had advanced to the next round.

However, Pritzker wouldn’t provide a firm timeline for when the licenses will be issued during Tuesday’s news conference at the Thompson Center, saying only that his administration believes the process could be completed sometime in the fall. The 75 new dispensary licenses were initially going to be issued by May 1, but the process was delayed by the pandemic — along with the pending cannabis cultivation, transportation and infusion licenses.

“Working quickly is important, but getting it right is also important,” Pritzker said, adding that the new review process will ensure there are “as many people in that final lottery as deserve to be there.”

Pritzker also vowed to work with lawmakers to make changes to ensure that similar problems don’t emerge when future weed licenses are issued, like allowing applicants to move onto lottery rounds without earning a perfect score and capping the number of applications that each group can submit.

“My administration will continue to work with the General Assembly to see how and where we can improve the process to advance our common goals,” said Pritzker.

Pritzker’s mea culpa came after weeks of administration officials touting the diversity of the firms that were initially included in the lottery, who all received additional points on their applications by qualifying as so-called social equity applicants. The social equity program was embedded in the law as a way to bolster diversity in the overwhelmingly white weed industry.

But on Tuesday, Pritzker’s key pot adviser Toi Hutchinson conceded that officials are “laser-focused” on investigating whether the initial applicants included in the lottery — many of which include clouted and deep-pocketed individuals — aren’t merely front groups.

Pritzker also wouldn’t offer an estimate for how much the additional review could cost the state, and Hutchinson sidestepped a question about whether the global accounting firm KPMG would be involved in the process. KPMG was granted nearly $7 million in no-bid state contracts to grade applications for all the delayed cannabis licenses. The firm, state officials said, was hired to ensure there was no bias in the process.

Hutchinson said the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation “will be in charge of oversight, so we can make sure that we’re watching this review very, very finely before we make any of those other, additional announcements.

“We don’t want any more delays than we need. But we absolutely have to make sure that people have trust that the process was fair,” added Hutchinson, who also wouldn’t offer a timeline for when the other pending pot licenses will be issued.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office clarified that KPMG will be involved in the additional review process.

“IDFPR will ensure strong oversight of the process with KPMG to ensure every step focuses on fairness,” said Pritzker spokeswoman Charity Greene. “The process the state has announced is an addition to what has already been done. As a result, it will require additional work be done.”

It’s unclear how much more the state will wind up paying KPMG, which saw its initial $2.5 million contract balloon to $4.2 million in June because there were “more unique applications submitted than initially anticipated.” The final payment to the firm is still being hashed out.

Asked if she had anything to say to the applicants given another shot at the lottery, Hutchinson said she was encouraged that the cannabis industry “is growing” and will provide a variety of opportunities to those interested in getting involved.

“These people now that have started to study the whole cannabis industry can literally bloom where they’re planted,” Hutchinson said. “There’s a number of different opportunities to get involved, whether or not you own a dispensary or you own a cultivation center.

“There are all kinds of vendors that go into each dispensary, there’s supply chain, there’s all kinds of different ways that this industry’s going to grow with a population of people who now see a place for themselves in it. That’s why we did this.”

Meanwhile, the existing marijuana stores have raked in more than $360 million since Jan. 1, when recreational pot was legalized.

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