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Lotteries set to award 185 new pot shop permits after lengthy delays derailed rollout

Officials have also notified the preliminary winners of new licenses to grow, infuse and transport marijuana — the first batch of so-called social equity applicants that are being awarded lucrative cannabis licenses.

Customers buy marijuana products at a dispensary in Joliet in January. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Marred by lawsuits and lengthy delays, Illinois’ troubled cannabis licensing rollout is finally moving forward.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office announced Thursday that a series of lotteries for 185 new cannabis dispensary permits are now planned for later this month and August, moving the state one step closer to meeting its lofty goal of diversifying the lily white weed industry.

What’s more, officials have notified the preliminary winners of 213 total licenses to grow, infuse and transport marijuana — the first batch of so-called social equity applicants that are being awarded lucrative cannabis licenses in the state.

The movement comes on the heels of state legislators passing a bill that addressed earlier licensing woes and created 110 of the new pot shop licenses that are now being issued. Pritzker has now signed the bill into law, his office said.

“Legalizing adult-use cannabis brought about an important change, and this latest piece of legislation helps move us even closer to our goal of establishing a cannabis industry in Illinois that doesn’t shy away from the pain caused by the war on drugs but instead centers equity and community reinvestment as the key to moving forward,” the governor said in a statement.

The planned lotteries for the newly created licenses will be broken in two and consist of 55 licenses in each round.

One of those lotteries will be open to social equity applicants who previously received 85% of a total of 250 points on the state’s scoring scale. For the other lottery, applicants will need to meet the definition of “Social Equity Justice Involved” status, meaning priority will be given to those who live in an area “disproportionately impacted” by the drug war or who have past arrests for cannabis-related offenses.

The new definition strips out a provision included in the legalization law that allowed applicant groups to earn social equity status by mostly hiring employees that qualify. That provision was derided by some jilted social equity applicants, who dubbed it the “slave master clause” as they fought to have it removed for future scoring rounds.

The lotteries for the 110 new licenses will happen before another is held for 75 licenses that were initially supposed to be released last May. That batch of licenses was delayed by the coronavirus outbreak and later derailed due to litigation and complaints surrounding the state’s scoring system that saw many clouted and deep-pocketed firms getting top marks.

Toi Hutchinson, a former state senator who co-sponsored the legalization law and now serves as Pritzker’s chief pot adviser, said she’s encouraged by the progress but still concerned about the prospect of new litigation.

“It’s always a concern, but also it’s out of our control,” she said. “We know that there are people who actively do not want this to succeed. ... And the longer it stays in chaos, there are people who benefit from that, and unfortunately, it’s not the applicants.”

But some minority applicants are now questioning how the lotteries are scheduled — and who the structure benefits.

Former state Sen. Rickey Hendon, a dispensary applicant and de-facto spokesman for social equity applicants, argued the state’s plan undercuts the new law’s goal of giving more minority applicants the opportunity to score highly sought after licenses. Hendon said he fears the well-financed firms that already qualified for the long-delayed lottery will dilute the two new lotteries before ultimately entering that drawing, as well.

“Why are we going out of order?” Hendon asked. “Who does it benefit going out of order? Not me and my people.”

Hutchinson, however, noted that no firm can win more than 10 licenses, the state limit. She also explained that holding the delayed lottery last allows the state to move through the process quicker because it’s hampered by certain rules that don’t affect the other drawings.

“If we waited until after that, we wouldn’t be starting anything until almost into September,” she said. “The community outcry is, “Let’s get going. Sign the bill. Let’s do the lotteries and do it right now.’ So that’s why we’re doing it right now.”

Here’s the schedule for the lotteries:

July 29: The lottery for qualifying applicants with a score of at least 85% of the 250 application points will be held for 55 licenses.

Aug. 5: The lottery for social equity justice-involved applicants with a score of at least 85% of the 250 application points and are located in a disproportionately impacted area or have an eligible conviction will be held for 55 licenses.

Aug. 19: The final lottery will be held for the original 75 licenses.