From Zoom.

Illinois State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) has led the charge to pass legislation creating new social equity-targeted cannabis dispensary licenses. Credit: From Zoom.

For months, Illinois State Rep. LaShawn Ford corralled cannabis advocates to find an agreement on how to improve the cannabis license process to get more licenses in the hands of minority-led teams. Late last spring, he and other negotiators announced an agreement, which passed the Illinois General Assembly, obtained Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature, and resulted in a pair of dispensary license lotteries held in the last two weeks. 

Now, Rep. Ford, in a phone interview conducted yesterday afternoon, tells Grown In that he’s dissatisfied with the license assignment process so far, and that it needs major changes, beginning with eliminating future license lotteries.

This interview has been edited for clarity and grammar.

Grown In: Let me ask you, what do you think of the outcome of the two lotteries so far?

Rep. LaShawn Ford: Given the fact that we know that the inaugural bill caused problems. I’m happy that there is some diversity but I’m not satisfied. So, your story is absolutely right. I’m not satisfied because the truth is it doesn’t reflect the impact that the cannabis laws had on the Black communities. So, right now, you still have a majority of the owners being white while the minority that’s impacted being black. 

There’s some ownership in there that gives Black people and minorities a chance. But just think about it: If we had fairness, it would be the people that were mostly impacted would have the most licenses. And the people that did not get impacted would probably have fewer licenses. So how could Black people be impacted the greatest, but come up on the short end in this process, it makes no sense. 

Grown In: But I want to ask you a question then. There was an enormous amount of negotiation among mainly Black constituents about this last piece of legislation and it almost seemed like it was like dragging everyone in order to get something together that everyone would agree on. So, considering the situation, what could have been done differently or better?

Ford: So there’s nothing we could have done any different but actually what we did and that was create new licenses. Otherwise, we would have had to throw out everything and have a whole new process of reapplying. And that would have cost a whole lot of money and people would have had to wait even longer. 

So the bill that I passed and worked on with the applicants and the industry was the quickest way – as you see we’re probably not going to have any lawsuits – and so we had to get some diversity. But we knew that the odds were going to be very high in the lottery for Black people to come out winning the greater number because Black people – I know a lot of them that may have only had one application in, that may have had two and others had thirteen. And so, this was the only way to prevent lawsuits and to make sure that people that had spent their money had an actual chance of getting in.

Grown In: A large number of all of these people in this last lottery on August 5th, had to have a majority-minority off or [Disproportionately Impacted Area] status. Clearly all these people were vetted so that it was at least 51% minority ownership. But then you came up with all these people that are allied with the various MSOs. So, you end up with all these people that are closely allied with MSOs and that’s why MSOs are now claiming that they’re going to have dispensaries in Illinois. A raft of press releases went out on Friday saying so-and-so MSO is now going to have an Illinois dispensary. What do you make of that?

Ford: What I make of that is the initial law that we passed created this. All we did with the trailer bill was clean it up and create opportunities for people to get in. And if we had not did that, there would be none. What do I say about that? I say that the initial law, we couldn’t get around it. We could not get around it because it was so expensive to even have a chance at getting in the lottery. To have a chance at doing anything. 

And so, because of that, we have to live with that bad first law. Prevent any lawsuits. And try to do everything that we could to move forward. Even though we knew we were in bad shape. We knew it. 

Grown In: So, as far as you’re concerned, this pool of applicants you don’t want to return back to. You want to have a new process. 

Ford: Oh, absolutely. We have to have a new process. A new application process that is very direct on targeting the hardest hit by the War on Drugs and sort of like what we did with the second lottery. It was targeted. And it shouldn’t cost as much. 

I think we’ve learned a lot and my relationship with Governor J.B. Pritzker has grown to the point that he understands what we need to do to make sure that industry is majority-owned by Blacks. 

Grown In: Can you give a specific example of what you might change for an application process? 

Ford: I think that what we’re going to do, we’re going to work together with the industry to find out exactly what they would like, because I don’t want to be direct in what I want. I think what we need is a simple process, like an application. One pager possibly. 

And we need to make sure that there’s a way that this process is without a lottery. There should be no lottery. The lottery is a mess. We can’t do that again. And hopefully that’s what people want. Hopefully, people are saying no more lottery, [just an] application process, something like that. 

I think that when you allow for the lottery, then you create problems.

Grown In: I want to ask you about cultivation. Right now we’re looking at all the biggest cultivators in Illinois are spending tens of millions of dollars to build out. For instance, a couple of weeks ago 4Front, which is one of the smallest cultivators in Illinois, announced that they are borrowing tens of millions of dollars to build out a new 265,000 square foot facility. We’re moving into a situation where the existing cultivators are continuing to dominate the market. How do you view that in relationship to craft grow, which are going to be limited to, at most, 14,000 square feet of canopy space?

Ford: Yeah, that’s totally unfair and I filed a bill to deal with that. And I’m asking the current [craft grow license] winners that they do everything they can to activate themselves to demand fairness. The way and the reason why we were able to pass a bill was because the people that had an interest in the stake in it, they refused to settle for anything less. 

So, it’s my hope that the people with an investment and an interest in this don’t settle down and let this type of process continue, because they’re going to be locked out.

Grown In: What do you make of the fact that there is already a secondary market for dispensary, craft grow, and transfuser licenses has popped up for many millions of dollars for a license. 

Ford: Well, I think you know we live in a society where it’s all about economics. We have a free will to do it. You would hope that the people will value the fact that we fought for diversity and they would want to have some diversity in the selling of it. 

But the fact that individuals won the lottery and if they could sell it and make millions, then, you know, I think that’s a good thing for them because what we want to do is create generational wealth. And guess what? If somebody could make millions off of the sale of their license? They could possibly use that money to make millions in other investments.

So, I think that we have something that will help people no matter what. So, maybe they won’t stay in the business but guess what? They became multi-millionaires from the business. They did what they had to do to become a millionaire in it. And guess what? Now, hopefully they will have the ability to grow that money and maybe invest in something else and be contributors to our economy.


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...