Ambrose Jackson, CEO of Helios Labs, which holds an Illinois craft grow license, two dispensary licenses and a secure transportation license. Credit: Submitted

It’s been twenty-six months since Illinois cannabis dispensary licenses applications were first due and the wait for resolution has taken on unexpected, mentally taxing dimensions for some.

“It feels like a game of hopscotch,” said applicant Ambrose Jackson. “You’re trying to figure out when to jump or not, based on the complete lack of information. Paying rent and operating costs for a year plus.”

“It creates an environment of uncertainty not just for us but for all the social equity applicants that are trying to navigate finding locations, getting local approvals, raising money from investors,” applicant David Alport told Grown In recently.

“It hurts everyone’s business. You have to look beyond the legal issues,” said Akele Parnell, another dispensary applicant. ”What happens to the market when this is all done? What happens to Black and brown entrepreneurs in two to three years?”

“The mental health impact of everyone involved,” added Jackson. “It feels more like a pipe dream. It’s very hard to not become disillusioned with the state of cannabis across the country.”

In January 2020, 3,895 applications were submitted for what became, through a series of legislative changes, 185 adult use dispensary licenses in Illinois. Originally, 75 licenses were supposed to be awarded by April 2020, but after a series of administrative delays, lawsuits resulting from a poorly designed scoring system, then the creation of a new set of licenses, then a court-ordered stay on awarding the licenses, and then more lawsuits, it all got wrapped up by the Illinois Supreme Court into a single court case. That case could be, depending on which attorney you talk to, resolved as early as this spring, or drag on into 2023.

The two year-plus wait has done irreparable damage to the teams awarded licenses in lotteries last summer – licenses the state is barred from transferring to winners by a court stay. Some members of applicant teams have had new opportunities in that time, and have moved on. Some teams have lost investment backers. Some have had trouble holding on to key employees they planned to hire. Others have just unraveled, say applicants we interviewed.

“These teams that were assembled may look a lot different than they did two years ago. Many have disbanded or changed. It takes a lot of stamina and perseverance to push through this. It just becomes increasingly difficult,” said Alport.

“It’s hard. I had to help some of my people, give them some money, to pay their bills, because they invested in me. It’s hard. Fortunately my group didn’t buy any property or lease any stuff,” said applicant Rickey Hendon. “I have friends that have been paying rent or mortgages for two years, and that hurts bad. But I’ve been paying the lawyers, and they’re not cheap. It’s been tough man.”

“We did enter into a contingent lease, based on getting a license and zoning approval. It’s still risky going into that because you have to pay to hold that lease. You use money you don’t have to give up because all this legal wrestling and posturing over procedure. It ultimately only benefits MSOs, and primarily white attorneys who are getting paid to represent people being taken advantage of by the process,” said Parnell.

As Illinois’ dispensary consolidated court case grinds on, the next hearing is this Thursday at 8:00 a.m. to set guidelines for a settlement conference, dispensary applicants are trying to stay positive.

“For us, we’re a resilient people,” said Ambrose, who is Black. “We’re not unused to trials and tribulations. How do we move things forward and put ourselves in a better position? For us, we’ve been laying the groundwork for the creation for what would be the first of Illinois’ minority-owned, vertically integrated companies. There’s an opportunity to bring culture and authenticity. We’re in the process of building that entity and model right now.”


Editor Mike is a co-founder and the editor of Grown In, a U.S. national cannabis industry newsletter and training company. His career has taken him from Capitol Hill to Chicago City Hall, from...