Illinois State Senator Celina Villanueva (D-11) says it will take decades to figure out how to properly regulate the cannabis industry. [Credit: Brad Spirrison]

The early returns are in, and tax receipts indicate there is a lot of money to be made selling cannabis in Illinois.  

The Illinois Department of Revenue collected $10 million in taxes from recreational cannabis sales, with the state’s growing number of dispensaries flooded with customers and unable to reliably keep inventory in stock.

As state government, private industry and others sort out how to legally scale an industry that for generations has flourished in underground markets, women and individuals of color are organizing for advancement and ownership in this historically high-growth Illinois cannabis sector.  

“This is still capitalism. It’s a market,” said Illinois State Senator Celina Villanueva, during her recent keynote address at the Equal Opportunity in the Cannabis Industryconference. “The people who have been failed by the policy are the best people to know how to change things.” 

Hundreds of area professionals from all walks of life attended the educational conference hosted at Kent Law School and organized by Illinois Women in Cannabis, a networking group started by a few early medical cannabis industry advocates and executives. 

A major concern of conference attendees: currently the Illinois cannabis industry – as measured by owners, directors, and senior executives of leading companies – is largely run by white men. As reported by WTTW this week, the number of women to hold senior executive positions in leading cannabis companies dropped to 17 percent in 2019. 

It’s too early to tell how these numbers will evolve, but in the meantime industry pioneers like Mindy Segal were on hand sharing their stories. Segal, after starting the iconic HotChocolate Chicago restaurant and dessert bar, operates her MindysEdiblesbrand of THC-infused products in collaboration with Cresco Labs. 

Other early executives and investors of Cresco Labs and Green Thumb Industries – as well as former and current lawmakers with stakes in the new legislation – were able to share war stories and best practices with newer industry entrants. 

Villanueva, who recently was appointed her seat after serving in the Illinois house, shared her own history of being raised by Mexican immigrants on the Southwest Side and living paycheck-to-paycheck for most of her career. 

In her opinion, there is a clear pathway for professional advancement, at least as far as the public sector is concerned. 

“Being a freshman legislator,” VIllenueva said, “I found I needed to find my voice somewhere. Cannabis was there percolating.”

As for the future?

“Is this legislation perfect?,” she asked rhetorically during her talk. “No. Nothing is perfect. I got involved knowing this is going to be the next 20, 30, 40 years of my life. They are still legislating alcohol.”

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.