Lawmaker pushes to create new pot shop licenses — just weeks after similar effort went up in smoke

A draft bill prepared by Rep. La Shawn Ford and shared with the Sun-Times would create up to 110 new dispensary licenses.

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State Rep. La Shawn Ford in 2019.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Amid uproar over the state’s troubled efforts to issue new cannabis licenses, state Rep. La Shawn Ford on Wednesday said he introduced a “shell bill” that will ultimately be used to create as many as 110 additional dispensary permits.

The Chicago Democrat filed the legislation last Wednesday and now plans to add language that would create the new licenses. The proposal is similar to a bill that cleared the Senate but ultimately went up in smoke during last month’s lame duck session.

“This is the language that’s coming from social equity applicants,” Ford said, referring to a designation created to diversify the state’s weed industry. “I really don’t have any interest in doing anything but what’s going to be good for the cannabis industry.”

The issuance of 75 outstanding dispensary licenses has been delayed by an ongoing controversy sparked by outcry from social equity applicants, who banded together after state officials announced last September that just 21 of the more than 900 dispensary applicant groups qualified for a lottery to determine the winners. Amid a series of lawsuits, Gov. J.B. Pritzker later announced that he was giving the losing applicants a second chance to earn the perfect score needed to qualify.

According to a draft of Ford’s bill, the lottery related to those licenses would take place once that supplementary grading process is completed. A second lottery comprised of some of the losing applicant groups would then be held no more than two days later to dole out 75 more licenses. And another 35 licenses would later be awarded after state officials complete a study analyzing the state’s demand for cannabis later this year.

The draft legislation would notably eliminate a provision in the legalization law that allows applicants to earn crucial social equity points by promising to hire individuals who qualify for that designation. That qualifier has drawn the ire of some social equity applicants, who have referred to it as the “slave master clause.”

Though Ford said the bill could get called in the House later this month, he’s concerned there’s not enough urgency to address the licensing issue and wondered why Pritzker “is not fired up about fixing this problem.” He hopes filing the bill will encourage jilted applicants to “ring the bell of other members so that they know how important it is.”

Charity Greene, a spokeswoman for Pritzker’s office, vowed to review the legislation, saying the administration “has championed legislation in the last two legislative sessions that would help the state achieve that goal.”

“The administration will continue to work with the General Assembly to pass legislation that will provide a path to participation in this new industry for Illinoisans from all backgrounds,” Greene added.

Ford’s draft legislation would also allow dispensaries to relocate — a contentious issue that has derailed those recent negotiations in Springfield. The state’s 55 medical stores — which now have the ability to also sell recreational weed — would be allowed to start moving four months after the second lottery takes place, while other pot shops could relocate four months after that.

Pam Althoff, a former state senator who now heads the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, noted that cannabis licensing remains “a very complex and a very emotional issue” and should be prioritized. After that, lawmakers can turn their focus to relocation and other legislative priorities, like allowing dispensaries to permanently offer curbside pickup and giving cannabis businesses the ability to put new hires to work while state officials run required background checks.

“We can have very clear, candid, informative conversations about the other issues as the lottery issue doesn’t cloud the room any more,” she said.

Ford, who has filed five “shell” bills to potentially address the various cannabis-related concerns, noted that the draft language on licensing and relocation is subject to change.

“If there has to be tweaks, then there will be tweaks.”

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