Illinoisans push for more equitable cannabis industry

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Marijuana is now a billion-dollar industry in Illinois, but not everyone is getting a slice of the pie.

When the state legalized cannabis for recreational use in 2019, 75 "social equity" dispensary licenses were set up for people in communities hardest hit by the war on drugs.

After more than 4,000 people applied, only 21 were approved.

“The law wasn’t intended to have it dominated and monopolized by a few people that have millions and millions of dollars," State Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, said.

The state’s last report on dispensary demographics from June 2020 shows that only 14% of those who own or partially own a dispensary are women. Even more stark is that only 6% are people of color, including exactly one African-American.

Springfield resident Dameon Johnson was one of those denied a social equity license, none of which have been distributed to date, despite a May 2020 deadline.

"The original intent of the law was to increase diversity in the industry, and we're clearly not accomplishing that at this time," Johnson said.

Johnson is Principal Officer for Emerald Valley Industries. He says the state's adult use marijuana industry is mainly corporations that took advantage of loopholes in the legalization law, effectively shutting out mom and pop dispensaries.

He says the application process was confusing and unclear as how it was being graded and by whom.

A new bill introduced by Ford would lower the original eligibility requirements and get the ball rolling again on those 75 social equity licenses, plus add 110 more.

"I'm hoping that this gets the ball rolling because the entire adult use industry has been stalled out because of this process," Johnson said. "We're at a severe disadvantage and I really hope the state of Illinois sees that and offers assistance to companies like ours."

Johnson says he is hopeful the proposed legislation solves the issue, but he also doesn't expect it to fix everything.

House Democrats said Thursday, May 20, during a press conference at the Statehouse that they hope to get the reform bill passed before the end of the legislative session this month. It is currently awaiting a vote on the House floor.

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