Former Illinois cannabis cultivation regulator offers insight into cannabis and hemp futures

Jeff Cox (LinkedIn)

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, one of the chief authors of Illinois’ recreational cannabis program, called the state’s medical cannabis program, Jeff Cox’ “monumental achievement”. Admired not just for his work, but his congenial Illinois plains manner, Cox left his position as Chief of the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Medicinal Plants in mid-June. Since then he’s joined NMI Management, a cannabis application and operations consulting firm where he works on clients in states other than Illinois, to comply with Illinois’ “revolving door” rules.

Responsible for oversight of cannabis and hemp cultivation, as well as the promotion of the state’s new cannabis craft growers licenses, the Illinois Department of Agriculture hasn’t named Cox’ replacement, and in fact says they are in a “transitory period”. 

In an interview with Grown In yesterday, Cox said he went to the private sector because, “It was an interesting opportunity to see it from the other side. Opportunity only knocks so often.”

Cox, who grew up in rural Williamsville and obtained a agri-business degree from Truman State College, ended up as a meat inspector for the Georgia Department of Agriculture after graduation. Eventually tiring of offal, Cox moved on to law school and became entranced with trial work, picking up a job in 2005 at the Sangamon County State’s Attorney in Springfield, Illinois. Gradually working up from prosecuting speeding tickets to major felonies, he left the prosecutor’s office to join the Illinois Department of Agriculture at the start of Bruce Rauner’s administration in 2016. A cannabis skeptic, the Rauner team asked him to run the program because of his prosecutor background.

“I was not a believer in cannabis programs when I started. I was raised by a colonel in the United States Air Force. I thought cannabis was bad no matter the form. Then, I met some cannabis patients, talked to doctors and started to change my tune on it. Especially the medicinal benefits,” says Cox.

Many of the Illinois markets’ problems, Cox believes, can be ascribed to the low number of medical patients allowed to obtain permits at the beginning of legalization in 2016. 

“We didn’t have the patient count that we expected at the beginning ,The original number projected was 100,000 for the first year. But instead we were at 6,000. We had 21 cultivation centers [approved] but we probably needed one. That slowed everyone down a lot,” said Cox.

But now you’re seeing patient numbers increase, production across all 21 centers has increased,” said Cox. “I think they will continue to catch up. They’re not all going to be as big as the big boys. It’s not going to happen in that way. But we have a lot of MSOs [multi-state operators] in Illinois. They have a lot of capital that they’re going to spend.”

Asked about the high concentration of market share among cultivators Grown In reported last month, Cox blamed mismanagement and inexperienced growers.

“Some of those names that were really big have gone away, and sold out to other companies,” said Cox. “Experience of growers is a big thing though. With 1,000 clones, do you harvest 10, or 998? That can just add up to be the experience of a grower. You can have a catastrophe of bugs. If you have one or two grow rooms, and you get aphids or white mold in one of them, you can lose the whole crop.”

But, Cox believes that Illinois’ new community college cannabis training programs will produce a new generation of better growers. 

“We have some interesting stuff going on in Illinois, where you can learn how to do this and be trained by professionals. That’ll help – maybe. You can walk out of a community college with a certificate that you’ve been trained how to do this,” he said.

Cox is also optimistic that craft growers will significantly alter the state’s supply situation.

“We’re about to add 40 craft growers. It’ll be interesting to see how that pans out. Where those craft growers are located will not be isolated geographically [as cultivation licenses were required to do]. That’ll be interesting in how that pans out, if a whole group of them site around the Chicago area, and then how far these growers distribute,” said Cox.

“Obviously we need to increase production in all the facilities, because the more product we have on the shelves the more than can be sold. That takes time. It takes six months to add  on a facility and then another six months [to grow] before you can go to market. I’m interested in the infuser [license] side of things. When we have more people doing processing things, could that free up cultivators to focus on just growing. In that space, can [cultivators] convert that space into a growing facility?”

As for hemp, Cox is bullish on the future of industrial, fibrous hemp, but is unsure of the future of CBD hemp.

“Illinois is made for fiber,” he said. “We have these vast, flat fields perfect for row crops and being able sow seed and not have to prune plants. We have some of the best soil in the world. I think fiber is going to be the real future in Illinois because of the topography. We need fiber processors to come to Illinois and start making paper and plastic products and carpet. I think that will happen and fix itself.

“When it comes to CBD, I don’t know how we get more processors to come to the state. We have to make sure we’re producing high quality CBD hemp. It’s a battle of genetics to comply with the federal rules. High cannabinoid with not a high delta-9 and high THC-A level,” he said

Last season, “was an interesting situation where you had a huge demand of farmers and consumers but no processors in between. But we have farmers sitting on tons of harvested hemp with no place to sell. Places with no capacity to take all this bailed hemp.

“I don’t see a lot of processors coming in to invest in a [CBD hemp] processing facility unless they know they can get a product they can use. It’s a matter of determining what genetics they can use.”