The Illinois Capitol dome. Just don’t look down. Credit: David Wilson

Illinois cannabis advocates have dim hope for the Illinois General Assembly bringing cannabis-related bills for a vote before the current session ends this Friday. The state of affairs has put lawmakers and cannabis lobbyists on edge as some predict drastic consequences for the state’s industry if there are no changes to Illinois’ regulatory system

State Rep. LaShawn Ford, who has often taken a lead on cannabis issues in the Illinois House forecasts no passage of cannabis legislation until after the fall midterm elections. Ford says Increasing growing space for craft growers is badly needed so small growers can remain profitable, while consolidating agency oversight is a desperately needed reform.

“It’s just unfortunate that the parties involved couldn’t agree on the path forward for a lot of bills,” Ford said. “The industry has grown and there’s so many people asking us to amend the Cannabis [Regulation and Tax] Act. We have to come together with something that all of the stakeholders and investors can agree on that helps the people involved.”

Both Rep. Ford and cannabis lobbyist and advocate Mark Peysakhovich advocate for a measure that would expand canopy size for growers from 5,000 to 14,000 square feet,  SB3105, sponsored by State Sen. Cristina Castro, a Latino Caucus member who chairs the powerful Senate Executive Committee. Yet, in the waning days of the Spring Session, that bill does not seem to have enough votes to pass the chamber.

Craft growers, whose licenses were entirely reserved for social equity applicants, cannot be competitive with larger corporate operations with what Ford describes as a restrictive space.

“It puts social equity applicants at such a disadvantage,” Ford said. “They can’t compete with such small spaces.”

Scott Redman, president of the Illinois Independent Craft Growers Association, said that neglecting many of these issues leaves money on the table the state is missing out on. 

“It’s disheartening that the system doesn’t work the way it should,” Redman said. “This is the only new growing industry in the state. But there’s still a lot more work to go and it’s harder when a lot of bigger players in the industry don’t support it.” 

If all 40 already awarded and the 60 soon-to-be awarded craft grow licensees worked in tandem, they would measure up to 500,000 square feet of canopy. Today, Illinois’ 21 licensed cultivators can each operate up to 210,000 square feet of canopy.

Another trumpeted bill that seems destined for the ash heap includes Rep. Marcus Evans’ legislation to create the Cannabis Equity and Oversight Commission, which would consolidate regulatory power from five agencies into one, provide new regulatory powers such as the ability “to establish market protections that protect against unfair business practices”, “amend or expand the definition of a Social Equity Applicant”, and “develop a noncompetitive application and selection process for licensing cannabis business establishments that may be similar to licensing under the Illinois Liquor Control Act.”

These bills, along with other changes that industry insiders have asked for, have been in limbo for years after meeting with opposition from the state’s numerous multibillion dollar operators. 

Peysakhovich lists off several other bills unlikely to pass in this period, including laws banning employers from firing people based on positive tests for THC, further expanding expungements, and urging U.S. Congress to declassify cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.

Although he recognizes that no state has it perfect, Peysakhovich said that the state is failing to protect social equity applicants and smaller businesses despite propping them up as a sustainable business model. The consequences could cause entrepreneurs to leave the cannabis industry in Illinois altogether.

“If they don’t get together, they’re gonna get picked apart. They haven’t been demanding change and that’s what needs to happen,” Peysakhovich said. “The legislature missed a chance to help social equity applicants.”

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Trey Arline is Grown In’s Midwest Reporter. He was most recently with the Daily Herald, but has also reported for Vegas PBS, The Nevada Independent, and the Associated Press.