Illinois cannabis legalization is just a week old, but the wheels are already in motion to not only drum up the industry but make sure opportunities exist for a diverse group of business owners.
Illinois is currently offering only new 75 licenses, in addition to those held by medical dispensaries that were already operating in the state before recreational legalization went into effect. It plans to give preference for the new licenses to individuals or companies applying under the state's social equity program. Now, entrepreneurs from communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs are preparing their applications.
Ron Holmes, co-founder of the Majority-Minority Group said the program is off to a good start.
"We know the applicants that came in last week were overwhelmingly social equity applicants," he said. "I think 600 out of 700 applicants all applied using the social equity threshold." Holmes's company assists minority and female applicants to apply for cannabis licenses and run successful businesses.
The social equity program was created by the state to funnel money and business back into communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. It's not just about granting business licenses. The state's plan will allow individuals arrested or convicted of marijuana-related offenses to clear their records, create low-interest loans available for those who have been arrested for or convicted of minor marijuana-related offenses and companies that hire employees who meet those criteria, and offer a quarter of the revenue from cannabis sales as investment back into those communities, with funds allocated as respective communities see fit, Holmes said.
On the day before legalization went into effect, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced surprise pardons for 11,000 people with low-level marijuana convictions. When he announced the pardons at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago, he said "the defining purpose of legalization is to maximize equity for generations to come." The city's top prosecutor Kim Foxx also tossed out 1,000 marijuana convictions before the new law was enacted.
"We talk about this being one of the largest criminal justice reforms in Illinois for a reason," Holmes said. "Whether or not folks get licensed or not, there are going to be folks who have their records expunged and can participate in society in a real way."
Massachusetts passed similar provisions when it legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, but only two of the current 184 Massachusetts license-holders are in the program.