State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford. | Provided

During a Cannabis Equity virtual town hall held July 8, State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8th) and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s former Chicago City Council floor leader, touted some progress on proposed legislation that would give minority business owners more opportunities to get cannabis dispensary licenses while emphasizing that they still have a lot of work to do to address the current disparities.

Since the sale and cultivation of recreational cannabis has been legalized in Illinois, the licenses have been snapped up by white-owned businesses. Several Black and Hispanic community leaders, including Ford, complained that the situation was unfair to minority communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. 

Ford and Villegas held the virtual town hall to discuss where the legislation currently stands and to give their constituents the opportunity to ask questions. Ford touted a bill that could give minority-owned businesses more opportunities to get dispensary licenses, while Villegas mentioned an ordinance that would lift the existing caps on the number of licenses. 

Both lawmakers agreed that, with conventional funding sources cut off, the state and the city should do more to help minority-owned dispensaries get off the ground. 

On May 22, the Illinois General Assembly passed House Bill 1443, which would increase the number of cannabis dispensary licenses available during the first round of the lottery from 75 to 175. 

At least 50 of those licenses must go to “social equity applicants,” or companies that are at least 51 percent owned by individuals who either were arrested for marijuana-related offenses before cannabis was legalized or live in “disproportionately impacted areas.” 

These areas are census tracts with high rates of poverty or high rates of marijuana-related arrests and convictions. Nothing in the bill explicitly requires the social equity applicants to be Black or Hispanic. 

The legislation also gives social equity applicants a better chance to get a license in a lottery and requires that at least 50 new dispensary licenses be issued by Dec. 21, 2022. The bill is currently waiting for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature. 

During the July 8 forum, Ford touted the bill as a major step forward, saying that he “got that commitment from the administration” that it will be signed.

“We need to have a better shot to make sure that the cannabis industry is more diverse,” he said. “I am convinced that now Illinois is in a better situation to have a more diverse [cannabis] industry.”

During a City Council meeting on June 25, Villegas introduced an ordinance that would increase the number of dispensaries owned by the people of color. Under the current zoning regulations, the city is divided into seven “cannabis districts,” with the number of dispensaries in each district capped at 14, while banning dispensaries in the Loop.  

This was set up to ensure that dispensaries are spread equally in all parts of Chicago, but Villegas argued not only did it not make the industry more equitable, but it drove some applicants away from the city.

“Currently, there are 19 licensed adult-use dispensaries, none of which are owned by people of color,” he said. “Sixteen are located in just four cannabis zones. [Several] opted out of Chicago and decided to locate in the suburbs or an adjacent county.”

Ford and Villegas agreed that one of the major obstacles for minority applicants has been financing, especially since banks don’t lend to businesses in an industry that’s still illegal under federal law. Ford said he would be in favor of using state funds to issue loans. 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...