Mike Fourcher

Sigh. Credit: Mike Fourcher

Three hundred and eighty-seven days ago recreational cannabis sales became legal in Illinois, with the promise that five months later, a suite of new dispensary owners, most of them Black and brown people, would get their own licenses to sell legal cannabis. Although that was the law, it was not what medical license holders – the companies that own all of today’s 89 dispensary and 20 cultivation license – wanted from the law.

“Remember: The original license holders wanted a two year head start,” said Springfield cannabis lobbyist John Daley. “Instead, they got six months. But effectively they’ve now gotten a year.”

As the Illinois legislature failed to pass a bill proposing 75 new dispensary licenses in lame duck session earlier this month, the Illinois legislature needs to start over again. Legislators tell Grown In that there’s will and an interest in passing legislation soon, but, “What does swift action mean?” asks Daley. 

“Is the lottery [for existing licenses] going to be held up until May 31, or will there be action in March? Does that mean something could be put in effect by May? Or is it voted on in May, and then we see something by September? Or by January 2022?” Daley posited.

The possibility of moving cannabis legislation in Illinois has a few things going for it, say legislators and lobbyists. First, the Legislative Black Caucus announced that creating new cannabis licenses was one of the four pillars of its agenda this session. Second, Illinois’ first new House speaker in decades is a member of the Black Caucus. And finally, legislators say the general shape of a cannabis bill has been agreed on by a legislative cannabis working group, as a bill that showed up in the last hours of lame duck session. 

That bill allowed the lottery for the 21 license applicants who advanced to the lottery round last September to go forward. It also created 75 new dispensary licenses for the hundreds of failed applicants in that round to apply for, free of charge, in a second round.

But there are significant challenges too, say legislators.

“The touchiest issue is relocation,” said Sen. Cristina Castro (D-Elgin), a member of the workgroup, and sponsor of the cannabis bill that made it to daylight during lame duck, referring to a provision that would allow existing license holders to move their existing dispensary location. 

“We have some members that are for relocation and some that are not. Largely because the industry has been dominated by some and they don’t want to give them an upper hand,” said Castro.

License applicants don’t want current license holders to have relocation privileges of any kind, since they charge it would allow incumbents to get the best locations.

But existing licensees want to move because they’re growing, to serve Illinois’ newest billion dollar industry.

“Now you have stores that want to be fully open for adult use. Easily accessible and friendly to the entire adult population. Open spaces, lots of parking, clear marketing, enough space to do education. You’re moving out of the seedy headshop to a very corporate, large, retail high-end experience,” said Daley. “That’s what relocation is about.”

Sen. Castro says she’ll likely reintroduce a simple bill focusing on the new dispensary licenses soon.

“I probably will reintroduce that as a starting point. I had a more comprehensive bill that dealt with a lot of the Issues that needed to be addressed,” Sen. Castro said. “Badging, containers, relocation, advertising. [Restricting] special district taxing bodies [from taxing cannabis] More competitive cannabis market rules.”

But Castro says she’ll likely hold off on those other issues until there can be agreement in the House.

Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), another cannabis working group member, is frustrated there has not been more progress. 

“It was supposed to be a simple bill with clean up language to make sure social equity would happen,” he said. “The relocation is probably going to be a sticking point.”

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