Time to exhale? State regulators finally pass around new batch of pot dispensary licenses

The long-awaited licenses are the first new ones to be issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration since marijuana was legalized in 2019 and sales started in 2020.

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A customer readies payment at a River North dispensary in May of 2020. A new round of pot dispensary licensed was finally issued by state regulators Friday.

A customer readies payment at a River North pot dispensary in May. A new round of dispensary licenses was issued by state regulators Friday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Illinois regulators on Friday issued 149 cannabis dispensary licenses that promise to more than double the number of pot shops statewide, ending nearly a year of delays for budding weed entrepreneurs who finally have the green light to prepare their storefronts.

The conditional adult use dispensing organization licenses are the first new ones to be passed around by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration since marijuana was legalized with his signature in 2019 and sales started in 2020.

Illinois’ troubled licensing rollout has hit snag after legal snag since then, with a steady flow of lawsuits amid criticism that a system designed to promote diversity in the industry has given way to corporate pot giants dominating a market with 110 dispensaries currently in operation.

The first companies to get a foothold all had been previously licensed by the state as medical marijuana dispensaries.

The 149 new so-called social equity licensees — meaning they were chosen with an eye toward racial or other diversity — were among 185 such applicants who won a convoluted series of lotteries ending last summer for the coveted licenses.

But after a pair of applicants sued over the state’s grading system, a Cook County judge ordered state officials to hold off on issuing the licenses. The judge lifted that order in May.

Pritzker’s office called Friday’s batch of licensees the “first wave” of winners to formally earn the privilege to sell weed. About 41% of the new licensees are majority Black-owned, 7% are white-owned, 4% are Latino-owned, and 38% didn’t share their owners’ races, officials said.

“Illinois is leading the way in addressing the War on Drugs as no state has before, and dispensary ownership that reflects our state’s diversity is a product of that commitment,” Pritzker said in a statement. “These licenses represent a significant step toward accountability for the decades of injustice preceding cannabis legalization. Illinois will continue to deliver on the promises of putting equity at the forefront of this process.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference in February.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference in February.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The new licenses do give people of color a footprint in the retail space, but existing players in the weed game and political insiders also scored.

Among the freshly minted licensees are GRI Holdings, a clouted firm with deep ties to state government that counts restaurateur Phil Stefani as a manager, and Jeffrey Rehberger, the chief executive of the video gambling company Lucky Lincoln Gaming.

Also getting the state’s seal of approval is minority-owned startup So Baked Too LLC, which earned a license after filing suit in Cook County court claiming the state “forced” it to unfairly give up spots in the lottery.

Like her fellow new licensees, So Baked partner Britteney Kapri has 180 days to secure approval for a storefront location before obtaining the full license that allows the group to start stocking up on weed. Kapri said she was still “in shock” to have a license secured in the years-long saga.

“We are still at the very, very beginning of a long, long process,” Kapri said in an email. “I feel good, really, really good … and scared but hopeful.”

About 100 of the new licenses are earmarked for the Chicago area.

Contributing: Tom Schuba

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