CHICAGO (CBS) — Facing calls from Black and Latino lawmakers to suspend the lottery for 75 new marijuana dispensary licenses, Gov. JB Pritzker said he’s open to minor tweaks to the program, but he said the process needs to move forward before considering sweeping changes.
Recreational marijuana sales started in Illinois Jan. 1, and the first set of licenses were awarded only to firms with existing medical marijuana licenses. The upcoming lottery for new licenses is the first chance for aspiring pot entrepreneurs to join the growing industry.
Last week, the state announced only 21 of 700 applicants for up to 75 new dispensary licenses would move forward to the upcoming lottery process.
With so few applicants making it into the lottery, the Illinois Legislative Black and Latino caucuses want Pritzker to pause the lottery process until the public can learn more about how and why the 21 finalists were chosen. They have questioned if the process was truly fair.
Pritzker and his senior marijuana adviser, former state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, on Tuesday said the lottery must move forward, as required by state law, and noted all 21 finalists qualify as so-called “social equity” applicants.
To qualify as a social equity applicant, a majority of the company’s ownership must either have spent 5 of the last 10 years living in an area disproportionately affected by the war on drugs, or have a prior arrest or conviction for a drug-related crime that is eligible for engagement; or have at least 10 full-time employees, most of whom who would meet the social equity requirements.
Pritzker said approximately two-thirds of the finalists are owned by people of color.
“When we’re done with this process, we will have the largest percentage ownership by people of color anywhere in the nation,” he said.
Hutchinson noted applicants were able to seek up to 10 licenses each, so overall there were more than 4,500 applications for the 75 new dispensary licenses, so “there was bound to be a lot of disappointment for this first round.”
“We knew that this was going to create a thunderstorm,” she said.
Asked he will consider suspending the lottery for the 75 licenses, Pritzker said that’s not allowed under the current state law governing the program.
However, the governor said he would support possible changes in the next rounds of the licensing process, when the state will award approximately 400 licenses for craft growers, infusers, and marijuana transportation firms.
“There will be changes and fixes along the way,” he said. “The social equity focus of the cannabis industry, and how it was created, this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We’ve said that all along. We’ve had to focus on making sure that at each step the diversity that we all want – the diversity, the equity, the inclusion that we all want from this industry – is, in fact, brought to bear.”
Hutchinson and Pritzker stressed that the reason the state started with 75 new licenses for recreational marijuana dispensaries was to figure out what problems they might face in the first round of the process, and evaluate what changes might need to be made down the line.
“This is a long game. We always knew it was going to be a marathon, and we knew this would be the hardest, most crucial point, is what would happen in these first rounds,” Hutchinson said.
The governor also pointed out that the state’s licensing process includes an upcoming disparity study to help state officials understand how the industry is working, and make any needed corrections to the program as it moves forward.
“We ultimately want the outcome to be as we all had hoped and intended,” he said.