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Bill looks to resolve stymied cannabis licensing rollout, add 120 pot shops

“This is driving home the intent of the cannabis law of Illinois,” said state Rep. La Shawn Ford. “We want to get to the point of true social equity.”

State Rep. La Shawn Ford listens as former state Sen. Ricky Hendon speaks during a press conference outside Nature’s Care West Loop in the West Town neighborhood, where cannabis equity advocates announced the introduction of House Bill 327, Tuesday morning, March 16, 2021. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
State Rep. La Shawn Ford listens as former state Sen. Ricky Hendon speaks during a press conference outside Nature’s Care West Loop in the West Town neighborhood, where cannabis equity advocates announced plans for new legislation last month.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times, Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As pot smokers across Illinois celebrated 420 — marijuana’s unofficial high holiday — state Rep. La Shawn Ford quietly filed a long-awaited amendment to a bill that aims to resolve the state’s beleaguered cannabis licensing process and vastly expand the legal weed industry.

“This is driving home the intent of the cannabis law of Illinois,” Ford, a Chicago Democrat, told the Sun-Times on Tuesday. “We want to get to the point of true social equity.”

Ford’s proposal would most notably create up to 120 new pot shop licenses, adding to the 75 dispensary permits that have remained in limbo for nearly a year. Those outstanding licenses were the first prioritized to social equity applicants, a designation created by the law that legalized recreational weed in an effort to diversify Illinois’ white-dominated marijuana industry.

But after outrage and legal action followed the state’s announcement that just 21 applicant groups qualified for a lottery to determine the winners, Gov. J.B. Pritzker halted the process to give hopefuls a second chance at qualifying.

With the dispensary licenses still held up along with the state’s other outstanding weed permits, Ford worked with a group of minority applicants to draft a compromise in the hopes of ending the deadlock. Though infighting over provisions erupted among some applicants, he believes their voices were ultimately reflected in the bill.

“I’m very happy that the social equity applicants had an opportunity to play a role in crafting this,” he said. “We believe this remains simple because we need a simple fix.”

Under Ford’s plan, 110 new recreational cannabis licenses would be issued to existing applicants in a second lottery. In addition, five licenses that were never issued would be doled out to new applicants in a “Social Equity justice Involved Medical Lottery.” Each of those licenses would give winners the right to sell medical and recreational weed at one store and open another for adult-use sales.

The measure also makes concessions to the operators of the 110 dispensaries that have already been licensed across the state — the maximum amount currently allowed under the law. That includes allowing some of those dispensaries to relocate after the new recreational licenses are handed out, addressing a sticking point that has previously derailed pot-related negotiations in Springfield.

Pam Althoff, the executive director of the influential Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, was involved in the negotiations but declined to immediately comment on the final product.

Still under fire over the problematic licensing rollout, Pritzker’s office issued a statement Tuesday night lauding Ford’s leadership throughout the “months of productive conversations with community leaders, stakeholders, and applicants.”

“Holding an additional lottery for conditional adult-use dispensary licenses will not only provide a path to participation in the industry for Illinoisans from all backgrounds but also provide high-scoring applicants from the first round an opportunity to gain a license,” said spokeswoman Charity Greene. “The Pritzker administration remains committed to issuing licenses and developing an adult-use cannabis industry in a fair, equitable manner which is why we have previously proposed two pieces of legislation to help achieve that goal.”