How Illinois is creating a national template for cannabis industry expansion

“It’s not usual that the government is really creating or starting or opening the door for a brand new industry.”

That was the high-level message delivered by Illinois governor, longtime venture capitalist and eventual presidential aspirant J.B. Pritzker this week while addressing hundreds of cannabis industry stakeholders at the Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference in Chicago. 

Cannabis is big business in Illinois, which is not only the Land of Lincoln but also the land of multistate industry operators including Green Thumb Industries, Cresco Labs, Verano Holdings, Pharmacann and a healthy piece of Curaleaf via its 2020 acquisition of Grassroots cannabis. 

Pritzker – who in 2019 signed pioneering legislation that legalized cannabis sales for all adults in Illinois through the creation of a social equity class of licensed retail, manufacturing and micro cultivation licenses – looks at his state’s reefer program through rose-colored glasses.  

“I have to say we did the right thing, and we are still managing through that,” he said, adding that “there are people who still complain that we should have more and more licenses issued daily. The reality is that by holding back we’ve still left a portion of licenses still available to social equity license holders so when they enter the industry they enter it in a profitable way.”

While Pritzker in his 25 minutes of prepared remarks in front of multiple local news cameras noted the creation of 50 new licensed Illinois cannabis businesses as an indicator of the program’s success, he didn’t mention the well-chronicled challenges of several dozen license holders who are unable to access sufficient capital to operationalize their new businesses. 

Despite the painful failure to launch felt by many Illinois licensees, the state when graded on a curve that includes New York looks better by the day. None of the nearly 40 states that created legal cannabis programs in the U.S. over the last two decades are operating without a hitch – most notably due to the federal illegality of the product.

Further, when you factor in the ambitiously progressive intent of allocating ownership of valuable licenses to individuals and communities most disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, it’s not delusional to say that Pritzker and the state’s capacity-deprived cannabis regulators deserve high marks for the program’s performance to date. 

“We’ve balanced those things properly, and the result is thriving businesses,” Pritzker said.

While I don’t know too many “thriving” legal cannabis business owners in 2023, there is renewed vision of the industry’s potential. The government, for better and worse, did create the industry and its still half-baked regulatory regime. It’s up to the private sector to take this template and do more with it as the industry normalizes at the federal level.

Public Registration Now Open for Grown In’s October 5 Illinois Cannabis Business Wholesale Conference

On October 5, Grown In will convene dozens of newly licensed Illinois cannabis retailers, infusers and craft growers with established and new-to-market Illinois cultivators and brands.

We have a limited number of public tickets available for what should sensimilla event of the season for licensed Illinois operators, industry dignitaries, and those who want to be part of the conversation.

Update: Free registration for IL licensees is closed. Reach out to to be added to the waiting list.

Everybody else can now pay $99 for hours of networking, snacks, refreshments and perhaps a surprise or two along the way at Lacuna Lofts in Chicago’s Pilsen Neighborhood.

Benzinga Nuggets

If news of the Biden Administration considering a rescheduling of cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 3 was smelling salt, a SAFE Banking vote announced this week provided at the very least a nice sugar high many beleaguered cannabis investors and operators who have suffered through 18 months of industry depression.

A year ago when Benzinga last hosted a cannabis capital conference in Chicago, almost all in attendance recognized dark storm clouds for the industry coming. This year, the feel is more resizing. Venture investment is beginning to return to the sector – for both plant-touching and ancillary startups alike. Series A valuations for recently funded companies are in the $15 million to $25 million range. 

There is a feeling more capital will be flowing in from canna-curious investors we get into in an election year. Stay tuned. 

The Burn ‘Em Plan Executive Summary

Recently Grown In convened a summit of leaders from local and national cannabis industry leaders or an all-day summit and planning session to discuss what it will take to help the cannabis industry in Chicago and Illinois reach its full potential.

Discover what they say it will take to fortify Chicago’s leadership position in commercial cannabis, drive innovation and job creation, and grow economic opportunities in Chicago and beyond.

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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.