Illinois cannabis dispensary applicant Jamil Shevers speaks at a press conference in support of cannabis social equity measures. Left of Shevers is former Chicago mayoral candidate Bob Fioretti, former state sen. Rickey Hendon, and activist Tio Hardiman. Credit: Mike Fourcher / Grown In

It took about twenty five minutes for a press conference meant to demonstrate unity in front of the James R. Thompson Building in Chicago’s Loop to descend into chaos. And then the drum and bugle corps began to play.

Ostensibly organized by activist and former Illinois state senator Rickey “Hollywood” Hendon and a new organization led by him called, “A Black and Brown Coalition Of True Social Equity Applicants”, the presser was supposed to showcase a number of organizations advocating for social equity in Illinois’ cannabis licensing process. Until recently, two organizations, Chicago NORML and Social Equity Empowerment Network (SEEN), were leading up negotiations with state legislators on behalf of minority-led cannabis applicants. But in recent weeks the very media-savvy Hendon has asserted himself into the process, bringing television cameras and a more bombastic style to social equity negotiations. 

[Download draft bill and bill summary from equity groups]

Tuesday’s presser, which included former Chicago mayoral candidates Tio Hardiman and Bob Fioretti, as well as professional activists Eric Russell and Wallace “Gator” Bradley, marked a hard turn in the tenor of Illinois cannabis activism, which to this point had been largely led by organizations made up of applicants. Now, it’s becoming populated by political regulars.

Illinois’ cannabis licensing process has become mired in lawsuits, holding up 75 dispensary and 40 craft grow licenses, while applicants have claimed the license process has ignored the legislature’s original intention to direct licenses to minority applicants impacted by the War on Drugs – people who live in so-called “Disproportionately Impacted Areas” (DIA).

At stake is the question of whether or not members of 21 applicant groups who already won access to a lottery of 75 dispensary licenses should have the right to apply for another 75 licenses. And, if those who obtained social equity status by providing jobs to those who live in DIAs, should be allowed to apply for future licenses. Opponents of that job provision refer to it as the “slave-master” clause, since it allows white applicants to obtain social equity licenses while people of color work for those white owners.

After a failed last minute attempt at a legislative fix during the General Assembly’s lame duck session last January, new legislation became mired in arguments between various social equity advocacy groups. Last week, State Representative La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) asked the advocacy groups to meet privately to hash out a new bill by last Friday, February 19. Tuesday’s press conference was meant to demonstrate unity behind that new bill, instead all of those tensions came to a head.

Hendon, began the presser by discrediting the negotiation process with other organizations.

“We sat down with other activists, and found out they were greedy, and the color of greed is not white or black, it’s green,” said Hendon. “These people are already in round one, they got no business being in round two. We’ll be damned if we let them into social equity round two,” he said, obliquely referring to Edie Moore, executive director of Chicago NORML, and a member of one of the 21 applicant groups that advanced in the last dispensary licensing round.

Then, after Hendon orchestrated testimony of social equity applicants who told stories of injustice at the hands of the State, other coalition members began to dispute him in front of the array of television cameras.

“We have not agreed with all the terms that have been provided in the bill you guys handed out,” said Vitoria Herring of SEEN, referring to the proposal they submitted to Rep. Ford.

Soon after, a man standing to the side began to taunt Hendon, calling him a liar, and Chicago NORML’s Moore, who had missed Hendon’s veiled references to her, began countering Hendon as he answered questions from the press.

“You’re not answering it correctly, because you’re trying to answer for me!” Moore said to Hendon.

After a few more minutes of back and forth with the press and members of his coalition, Hendon brought out a ten person drum and bugle corps, who drowned out further questions with thunder reverberating off the Loop’s glass office buildings.

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