After complaints, Illinois revises process of applying for marijuana license

Illinois tweaked how business owners seeking recreational marijuana licenses can apply following complaints that the process favored politically connected and rich applicants over minorities and veterans who were supposed to benefit.

Recreational marijuana sales started in January under an Illinois law that, like similar efforts elsewhere, was touted for so-called social equity provisions designed to address racial disparities and other inequities in the decadeslong war on drugs. Black Illinois residents are seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

However, some state legislators and applicants for pot shops said minorities and veterans were still being shut out under the complex point-based application process where only those with a perfect score would be allowed a shot at licenses. The first licenses to sell and grow recreational cannabis were given to existing medical marijuana companies.

On Tuesday Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a first-term Democrat, described the changes that will give rejected applicants a second chance as a matter of fairness.

Of more than 700 applicants, just 21 finalists got perfect scores to qualify for the lottery to win 75 licenses. Some criteria included having environmentally friendly plans and having at least 51% of the organization owned by minorities or veterans. Applicants can seek multiple licenses. State officials say Illinois could issue up to 500 dispensary licenses in a process that will take years.

Some applicants said they were rejected in the expensive process even after meeting the criteria. Two Black-owned businesses that were passed over sued, saying only “politically-connected insider companies” won lottery spots and alleging scoring inconsistencies.

Under procedures announced Monday, rejected applicants will be able to submit revised applications after the state notifies them of any “deficiencies” in their applications.

“Too many people have said that more needs to be done to ensure fairness,” Pritzker said Tuesday at a news conference. “As governor, I’m not interested in protecting a process that people are afraid to trust.”

Applicant Jermell Chavis, a Black former Marine from Chicago, missed the 252 perfect score by three points. He called it a “punch in the gut.”

While he was hopeful of being able to improve his application, he said part of him remained skeptical.

“It’s hard to have faith in the process when the initial results of the process spoke to anything but equity and fairness,” he said.

After the licenses are granted, the state must conduct a disparity study as part of the recreational marijuana law.

Already, thousands of low-level marijuana convictions have been expunged under the law, which also earmarks some revenue for neighborhood development.

Sales for recreational marijuana in the first six months of the year topped $239 million, exceeding state projections. Illinois collected nearly $53 million in tax revenue during that time, according to Pritzker’s office.