Number of pot shop licenses will more than double as court lifts stay

Lawsuits had delayed issuance of 185 social equity licenses for more than two years.

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A collection of marijuana flower

A Cook County judge Friday lifted a stay that will more than double the number of licensed marijuana dispensaries in the state.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Would-be marijuana shop owners breathed a sigh of relief Friday morning as a Cook County judge lifted a stay that had delayed state officials from issuing nearly 200 licenses for cannabis dispensary operators.

“I’m going to open some red wine and have a splash and a few puffs,” said Rickey Hendon, a former state legislator and license winner. Hendon said he and his investors had been waiting more than two years for this day. “This is like Christmas and my birthday all in one.”

After a confusing slate of three lotteries in 2020 and 2021, litigation filed last August by license applicant WAH Group stalled the licenses from being formally issued for some nine months. WAH Group requested the stay be lifted this week.

The 185 new licensees will more than double the 110 licensed pot shops operating in the state, and the bulk of the soon-to-be dispensary owners are applicants from minority groups. The marijuana retailers currently open across the state are all run by companies that had been licensed as medical marijuana dispensaries.

Hendon said he and his investors had struggled to stay afloat during the two years since they received a license and are eager to start looking for space to open their dispensary.

“A lot of guys, they may not have been able to hold on,” Hendon said. “I don’t know what they’ll do. Most of the [social equity] applicants aren’t rich people, they’re just folks putting up their life savings.”

The move will allow the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to begin issuing licenses awarded in lotteries held in 2020 and 2021 —drawings that had been delayed months as the state struggled to implement a scoring system for applicants. In the months that followed, COVID-19-related delays and administrative gaffes ground the process to a halt.

WAH Group will continue to litigate the rules for the state to conduct “corrective lotteries” for another 50 or so licenses later this year, attorney Mazie Harris said Friday.

The timeline to issue the 185 licenses that were subject to the stay was not clear. In a news release Friday, the state agency said it would provide information on “next steps” for applicants as soon as it receives guidance in a federal lawsuit disputing the validity of the residency requirements of the lottery program.

The state is finalizing plans for three additional “corrective” lotteries with new rules that would add “at least 50” new cannabis dispensary licenses by the end of 2022, and a lottery is likely to be held in late summer or early fall.

Hendon said he will look to open a location somewhere on the South or West side near downtown as soon as possible.

“We are not going to let the summer get away from us,” he said.

Akele Parnell, who has licenses to cultivate and to sell marijuana and serves as a consultant for social equity programs in other states, said Illinois’ delays around issuing these first groups of non-medical retail locations have justifiably drawn critics.

But Illinois was a leader in making sure members of minority communities that bore the brunt of harsh drug enforcement for generations were not cut out of legal marijuana sales, Parnell said. While the process was tortured, it was stalled by bureaucratic snafus and legal challenges based on technical aspects of the lottery and not social equity provisions of the pot laws.

“In Illinois, it really was a success in terms of making sure that people from Black and brown communities are going to have the majority of the licenses,” Parnell said. “From that perspective, it was a huge success. It just took a long time.”

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