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State postpones approvals for next 75 pot shops: ‘A dream delayed’ for social equity candidates

Michael Malcolm, author of the “Weed Travel Food” blog who submitted 10 cannabis dispensary applications, poses for a portrait on the South Side in December.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

With the state reeling from the COVID-19 outbreak, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday indefinitely pushed back the date for issuing the next round of cannabis dispensary licenses — the first permits prioritized for social equity candidates in an effort to bolster minority participation in the state’s overwhelmingly white pot industry.

Officials were expected to announce the winners of the 75 coveted recreational dispensary licenses on Friday, but Pritzker will instead sign an executive order delaying the move until his coronavirus-related disaster proclamation is lifted or the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation sets a new date. Meanwhile, the deadline to submit applications for new cannabis cultivation, infusion and transportation licenses has also been delayed twice and are now due Thursday.

“The Pritzker administration remains committed to creating a legal cannabis industry that reflects the diversity of Illinois residents,” said Toi Hutchinson, Pritzker’s senior adviser for cannabis control. “We recognize that countless entrepreneurs were looking forward to May 1 and the next step it represented for Illinois’ adult use cannabis industry.

“However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays in the application review process. This executive order will help ensure that we continue to build out this industry in a deliberate and equity-centric manner.”

‘Heavy on my mind’

More than 600 of the roughly 700 applicants for dispensary licenses qualified for extra points on their applications by living in an area adversely affected by past drug policies, having a pot-related criminal record or having a family member that meets the criteria, according to the IDFPR. But with no new deadline for handing out the licenses, some applicants are now growing impatient.

“In the last month or so since I’ve been quarantined, it’s been heavy on my mind because the date was getting closer and I have less to do,” said Michael Malcolm, a real estate broker and pot blogger from Morgan Park who submitted 10 dispensary applications.

“So I have more time to get lost in my own thoughts and think about it,” he added. “And now, to know that it’s going to be pushed back is extending that.”

While Malcolm and the other applicants have been awaiting a decision, existing cannabis stores were deemed essential businesses and have been allowed to stay open during the statewide stay-at-home order.

Dan Pettigrew, co-founder of Viola Brands, the country’s largest black-owned pot firm, poses for a portrait near his Hyde Park home in December.
Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times file photo

Existing shops’ ‘huge advantage’

Dan Pettigrew, a Hyde Park resident who runs, noted that those dispensaries have been “killing it with limited competition.”

“They’re getting a huge advantage,” Pettigrew said, adding that all those dispensaries are under the control of white majority owners. “That situation has nothing to do with coronavirus.”

Viola Brands, the company Pettigrew started with former NBA star Al Harrington, already grows weed in multiple states and has submitted dozens of dispensary applications in his home state. Despite the delay, Pettigrew predicts that Illinois’ cannabis industry will present “a great opportunity for a lot of people in the state, especially people who look like me.

“I’m assuming that there will be a lot more diversity in the space than there was, and I think that is great cause for celebration,” he noted.

Vincent Norment, an Englewood native who has applied for 20 dispensary licenses, said the state’s decision is frustrating for a business that still needs to earn a license to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he plans to continue investing in the brand while serving as a “voice for the social equity piece in the city of Chicago and the surrounding areas.”

Applicants don’t have to identify where they want to locate prospective pot shops to get a license, a requirement in other states. That’s allowed all three men to apply for more licenses than they can legally be awarded without having to lock down properties.

“Obviously, if you were paying lease on a place and this gets extended indefinitely, that could really, really be a burden on a lot of companies, especially smaller companies trying to get into the space,” said Pettigrew, whose company was required to lease a property on the South Side to apply for a craft cultivation license.

Applicants remain hopeful

Though Malcolm said it’s difficult to chart a course without knowing when the licenses will be issued, he acknowledged that all businesses are facing uncertain conditions.

“This is bigger than me and bigger than my opportunity and bigger than the opportunity for the cannabis industry,” he said. “Everybody is adjusting to this new normal.”

Malcolm remains hopeful that he will be able to break into the nascent industry.

“It’s just a dream delayed.”

Vincent Norment, an Englewood native who has applied for 20 dispensary licenses, poses for a portrait outside Cresco Labs in December.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo
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