After being stifled by the coronavirus outbreak and a series of lawsuits from jilted applicants, state officials confirmed Tuesday that the process for issuing the next round of highly sought-after cannabis licenses is again moving forward.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture issued the latest round of notices detailing specific problems that hopefuls for the upcoming craft cultivation, infusion and transportation licenses can remedy in their applications. Similar notices will also be sent “in the coming days” to applicants who didn’t initially qualify for an upcoming lottery to determine the winners of the next 75 lucrative dispensary licenses, according to Charity Greene, a spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office.
The move follows months of delays and criticism from applicants of color who have lambasted the governor and other officials for allegedly falling short of their goal of diversifying the state’s overwhelmingly white weed industry.
Rickey Hendon, a former state senator up for three dispensary licenses, has remained a vocal critic of how the application process has played out. But on Tuesday, he struck a more congenial tone.
“It is about time,” said Hendon, who didn’t receive the perfect application scores needed to qualify for the lottery. “I’m glad to see that [the deficiency notices] are coming out.”
However, applicant Debbie Allen’s excitement quickly gave way to frustration when she realized that the state had sent her disqualification notices that effectively knocked her out of contention for the craft grow, infusion and transportation licenses she applied for.
Greene said some applicants who were sent deficiency notices last year were issued disqualification notices because they either failed to respond within the required window or responded inaccurately. But Allen claimed she never received a deficiency notice, echoing a claim previously made by some dispensary applicants.
“This is just more of the same thing,” said Allen, a hemp grower who founded the Illinois Minority Cannabis Council. “This is ridiculous.”
Allen recently published a website that accuses the governor and members of his administration of being complicit in a “massive fraud” linked to the cannabis licensing process. While she believes the disqualification notices could be tied to that effort, Allen said she isn’t backing down and intends to challenge the decision: “I’m going to continue to fight the system because the system’s not right.”
“If this is allowed to continue to go forward like it is, it will never be right for minorities or women. Period,” she said. “We will not get a seat at any table to participate in this industry.”
Continued delays mar recreational pot rollout
The cannabis licensing process was most notably derailed after the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced in September that just 21 of the more than 900 dispensary applicants made the cut for the lottery.
Facing a series of lawsuits and criticism that many of the groups that qualified for the lottery included clouted and deep-pocketed individuals, Pritzker announced that losing applicants were being given another opportunity to fix their applications and challenge their scores later that month.
Tuesday’s announcement that state agencies are moving forward with issuing the new deficiency notices signals that the drawn-out process of licensing new cannabis businesses is back on track — though Greene said officials haven’t “confirmed” which licenses will be doled out first. Meanwhile, a pending lawsuit filed by the Illinois Craft Cannabis Association in Cook County court seeks to force the state to immediately release the delayed cultivation, infusion and transportation licenses.
State officials initially planned to hand out the dispensary licenses last May 1 and issue the other licenses exactly two months later, but the pandemic put an indefinite hold on those plans. The delay in issuing the dispensary licenses came in part because of a coronavirus-related travel ban instituted by KPMG, the global accounting firm granted nearly $7 million in no-bid contracts to grade all the upcoming marijuana applications.
Following the announcement of the initial qualifiers for the dispensary license lottery, KPMG came under fire from some applicants who claimed they were never sent the required deficiency notices. Around the same time, the Sun-Times also found that a KPMG employee partnered in one of the startups that initially qualified for the dispensary lottery.
Despite those issues, the firm will remained involved in the process for the foreseeable future.
“To prevent further delays that could be caused by onboarding a new vendor, [the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation] will continue to work with KPMG for the supplementary scoring process,” noted Greene.