The Illinois House met in the Bank of Springfield Center in May to help limit COVID transmission between members. Since then, infection rates have climbed, so legislators might skip a December lame duck session. (Photo from State Rep. Joyce Mason Facebook page)

While Chicago-based multi-state cannabis operators like Cresco Labs and Green Thumb Industries attribute success to control of the few Illinois facilities, political pressure is on Illinois cannabis regulators and legislators to get more cannabis licenses in the hands of entrepreneurs. But government efforts are complicated by a confused tangle of lawsuits holding up licenses that were supposed to be issued last summer and a statutorily required scoring system that many complain emphasizes the wrong qualifications for cannabis applicants.

Complicating matters more is the reality delivered last May, when a broad-ranging cannabis regulation fix bill was torpedoed in the Illinois General Assembly by lobbyists fighting against a specific measure. Now, cannabis regulators are more cautious about exactly how and what they bring up for a vote, scaling back ambitions for more radical changes to the Illinois legal cannabis program, such as adding more cultivation sites or expanding the canopy size of craft grow facilities.

For now, according to sources, an Illinois House-Senate cannabis working group, in consultation with the Pritzker Administration, has discussed the idea of advancing two bills. One, addresses less controversial issues like badging requirements, untethering medical patients to one dispensary, and some definition changes, says Cannabis Business Association of Illinois executive director Pamela Althoff.

“Then there’s a separate piece of legislation that would address the revisions for the next round of license applications,” said Althoff.

Althoff, legislators, and other cannabis industry lobbyists Grown In spoke to say there are numerous options under consideration by legislators and the administration, with another work group meeting scheduled for next week. The Illinois General Assembly could meet for a lame duck session in December, but Covid concerns have made such a meeting less likely than simply waiting for the next session to begin in January.

While getting craft grow and infuser licenses on the street is a concern, the majority of political attention has focused on issuing dispensary licenses, say advocates, because they require less investment and are likely to create more small entrepreneurial businesses.

At issue are two groups of dispensary licenses, to be distributed to at least three groups of applicants. The two license groups include the 75 licenses that were supposed to be awarded in summer 2020. The second group is made up of 110 licenses Illinois statues say can be awarded after January 1, 2021.

The seventy-five 2020 licenses have been enmeshed in court battles between 21 applicants who won the right to advance to a lottery round in September, and hundreds of losing applicants who charge in lawsuits that the license scoring process was unconstitutional and unfair.

Expecting the legal process to last for months, if not a year, regulators and administrators have begun to think about how statutes could be revised to distribute licenses to settle the court cases and get more dispensaries open. Depending on their interest, each group is pushing a different solution.

One solution, backed by Edie Moore, one of the 21 applicant groups who advanced to the lottery round, would allow the state to conduct a lottery for September’s 21 winners for 75 licenses, then automatically enter the remaining hundreds of other 2020 applicants in a lottery for 75 of the 2021 licenses. Finally, a new application process would be conducted for the 35 licenses left in 2021.

“This is a good solution,” said Moore, “It has something for everyone.”

Another solution discussed, says Althoff, would be to award the September 21 who advanced to the lottery round some number of licenses smaller than 75, then combining those leftovers with 2021’s 110 new licenses, and assigning those to the applicants who did not advance to the lottery round in 2020.

But any solution would require not only a legislative change, but also for the dozens of applicants currently suing the state to agree to drop their suits, a proposal that might not be very appealing if the plaintiffs believe they have a strong case.

While oral arguments for cases related to dispensary licenses won’t begin for weeks, cannabis regulators have relied on the unquestioned authority of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s numerous executive orders claiming emergency authority during the state’s Covid response.

In a related case last week, the Illinois Craft Cannabis Association (ICCA), a trade group of craft grow applicants, seemed to put attorneys for the state on the back foot, when in a hearing a judge repeatedly pressed state attorneys to clarify why Governor J.B. Pritzker has not explained his reasons for not awarding 40 craft grow licenses, as a result of his executive orders. 

Privately, government officials have said they are ready to award craft grow licenses, but they have delayed awarding them because they fear more lawsuits if the dispensary lawsuits are not resolved. If a judge were to force Gov. Pritzker to be more transparent about the condition of licenses, it may begin to force the state to award dispensary and craft grow licenses sooner.

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Editor Mike is an itinerate reporter, recovering political consultant, and strategy game devotee.