October 1, 2023


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Judge allows Illinois to issue licenses for 185 new cannabis stores following prolonged legal delay | Govt-and-politics

CHICAGO — After nearly 10 months of delay, a judge Friday ended the court order preventing Illinois from issuing 185 new recreational cannabis store licenses — though further litigation may jeopardize those licenses again.

Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Mullen lifted the stay that was issued last year, allowing the state to begin licensing new businesses, many of them started by Black and Latino owners.

The ruling means that companies that spent thousands of dollars to stay alive without revenue may now take steps toward opening, including finalizing zoning approval, buying or renting real estate, ordering supplies and hiring employees. That process may take several months to more than a year before the stores open.

The courts had prohibited licensing while considering lawsuits by companies that argued they were unfairly excluded from lotteries to award the licenses. State officials plan a corrective lottery to give those plaintiffs another chance to win a license.

By law, the first 75 licenses were supposed to have been issued two years ago, but were delayed by problems with scoring the license applications, which resulted in only 21 companies qualifying for a license lottery out of more than 700 applicants.

“People are super excited to move forward,” said attorney Ryan Holz, who represents businesses in line to get new licenses, as well as others that were excluded from the license lotteries.

But, he cautioned, there’s also a real concern that businesses that were excluded may ask for a new court order to hold up the licenses again.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which licenses pot dispensaries, issued a statement that it anticipates releasing detailed information about next steps for applicants as soon as it gets guidance in a federal lawsuit. That case involves a challenge to the state’s residency requirements for dispensary owners.

“Today is a key development toward our ultimate goal of creating the most diverse, inclusive, and robust adult use cannabis industry of any state in the country,” said the agency’s secretary, Mario Treto Jr. “We stand ready to swiftly move forward in ensuring Illinois’ standing as a national leader in the advancement of cannabis equity.”

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Black and Latino applicants have complained they have been unfairly kept out of the legal cannabis business in Illinois, where just 21 licenses for full-size growers have been issued, almost entirely to white owners, several of whom have come to dominate the industry nationally.

To ensure fairness for all applicants and correct any errors in the lottery process, the state agency announced, it is also working on finalizing plans for three corrective lotteries to be held in June — one for each of the dispensary lotteries held in 2021. Updates will be available on the agency’s adult use cannabis website.

The legal reversal in the case came after one of the companies suing the state over the licensing process, WAH Group LLC, asked to end the prohibition on the new licenses. The firm, represented by attorney and co-owner Mazie Harris, won the rights to three licenses, so it stands to benefit from the process moving forward.

WAH’s request also noted that Cook County Judge Celia Gamrath, in another cannabis licensing case, had warned that it could take many months or years to resolve ongoing litigation.