Members of the advocacy group True Social Equity in Cannabis meet in Chicago’s Loop for a press conference Tuesday, April 19, 2022. Credit: Trey Arline / Grown In

Cannabis advocates and activists staged rallies in Chicago and Hartford, Conn. this week criticizing failed promises of the state to social equity applicants, and to promote a civil suit filed in federal court in Illinois charging that the playing field has been uneven from the start.

True Social Equity in Cannabis, an umbrella group of social equity advocates, seeks to eliminate cannabis licenses caps and legalize possession of any amount of cannabis in the state. This month, attorney Mark T. Lavery of Lagone Law Firm LLC filed a lawsuit on the group’s behalf against Akerna Corp., Green Thumb Industries Inc. (GTI), Verano Holdings Corp. and Surterra Holdings Inc., alleging that they are a “Chicago Cartel ” that has frozen out social equity applicants since the state legalized cannabis in 2020.

[Download a copy of the complaint.]

The suit also alleges that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s family, the Wrigley chewing gum family which founded cannabis company Parallel, and heir to the Jim Beam fortune and GTI founder Ben Kovler colluded to create a cartel to freeze out social equity applicants. The lawsuit seeks to dissolve the companies and divest their assets.

True Social Equity spokesperson Anna Rose Li-Epstein, an applicant who first applied for a license two years ago, said that more applicants would be able to participate in the industry if the lawsuit succeeds.

“We’ve been trying to fix all of this and stop the monopolization,” Epstein said. “We believe that these companies lobbied millions of dollars to make the laws the way they are in order to benefit them.”

An Akerna spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune that the lawsuit “has multiple inaccuracies, including but not limited to the fact that we are not a plant-touching operator,” and said that their legal team will respond to the suit.

Chris Langone of Langone Law Firm LLC, head of the law firm that filed suit, said the suit was filed because he thinks that these companies colluded with each other to control the market in the state, freezing out people of color from the cannabis industry in Illinois.

“The people in the legacy path were seeing this as a path to restorative justice. Now they’re not even able to compete,” Langone said. “When you drill down and see who’s profiting in the state, it’s the politically connected interests. Every day that goes by without competition is a day that benefits the status quo.”

Edie Moore, executive director of NORML in Illinois and not affiliated with True Social Equity, believes that while there are legitimate complaints to be made about Illinois’ cannabis industry, she thinks the lawsuit does not have merit. 

“I think it’s a distraction and I don’t think it does the public any good to be confused and distracted by things like this,” Moore said.

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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.