The launch of Illinois’ adult-use cannabis market has had difficulties, as the languishing of 245 licenses in court will attest. But the main face of the state’s regulatory effort, Toi Hutchinson, mostly drew plaudits and admiration from state industry leaders as she leaves her position as “Cannabis Czar” for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to lead the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
“As a black woman in the cannabis industry on a couple of different levels, her legacy is one of a role model and mentor and trail blazer, someone who set the stage and laid a foundation for what this thing is going to be,” said Kiana Hughes, executive director of Chicago NORML.
“Ms. Hutchinson was instrumental in crafting legislation that legalized adult-use cannabis in Illinois, but most importantly, she worked tirelessly to ensure communities most impacted by past injustices would benefit from the legislation she helped design,” said Jeremy Unruh, Senior Vice President for Public and Regulatory Affairs for PharmaCann.
As a Democratic Illinois State Senator from Chicago’s South Suburbs for ten years, Hutchinson became known as an aggressive legislator, working to build relationships with anyone she could meet. In 2018, she was named president of the National Conference of State Legislators, which required her to travel across the country on behalf of the organization.
“It made a lot of sense that MPP would reach out to someone like her, because of her expertise in Illinois and she has a lot of recognition in other states because she was president of NCSL,” said Pam Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, and a former Republican State Senator who served with Hutchinson. “To me it was a real, nice fit.”
In 2019, then-newly elected Gov. J.B. Pritzker made adult-use cannabis legalization and expungement into a top priority for his new administration. Hutchinson, a leading member in the state Senate, took a visible role in advancing the bill through the chamber, and worked closely with MPP, who advised on the bill’s language.
Once the 2019 Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act passed, Gov. Pritzker announced his intention to appoint Hutchinson to a “Cannabis Czar” position, overseeing the five state agencies regulating the law. However, a clause in the state constitution bars legislators from taking positions created by laws they voted for.
Gov. Pritzker rolled back his announcement and instead of in an agency with direct-line authority, he installed Hutchinson in his office as Senior Advisor for Cannabis Control in November 2019. Regardless of her title, behind the scenes, it was always clear that Hutchinson called the shots.
But her brief in November 2019 included getting new dispensary licenses out the door through an application process and lottery by April 2020, a process that a Grown In investigation showed was flawed long before she got to work, and was exacerbated by the Covid pandemic and a rammed-through pick of accounting firm KPMG as the application tabulator. Hutchinson was left holding the bag as she told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I didn’t read the KPMG contract itself.”
Illinois’ adult-use cannabis license process attempted to put a heavy emphasis on getting licenses in the hands of social equity applicants, but problems with the adult-use license process resulted in the vast majority of licenses getting stuck in court for almost two years, while medical license holders, now almost exclusively white-led, multi-state operators, raked in billions of dollars of revenue with little competition.
Between adult-use legalization in January 2020 and November 2021, Illinois cannabis dispensaries sold over $2.6 billion of legal cannabis. A June 2020 report, repressed by state regulators, showed that Black and Latinos owned less than 2% of licenses at the time. Today, as independent licenses have been snapped up by MSOs, that number is likely even lower.
The circumstances have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many social equity applicants.
“Toi was basically invisible to us. We’ve been contacted more by illinois’ tax agency than any other group,” said Eric Ice-Gipson, a disabled, Black veteran who is part of a group of dispensary, infuser, and craft grow license winners. “That is wholly unacceptable. If you’re the czar, as unfair as it may be, the buck stops with you.”
But other advocates suggest that Hutchinson did her best in a tight spot.
“I would ask what unilateral power would she have to control all of the pieces to make that a different situation,” said Hughes, herself an out-spoken advocate for minorities in cannabis. “She didn’t write the law by herself. I wouldn’t hold her fully responsible for even the execution of the law. That’s where the hard work begins.”