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Despite Illinois' Promise, State Lacks Black-Owned Cannabis Dispensaries

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Illinois passed a law legalizing the sale of recreational cannabis, it had a big opportunity - created a new kind of business, which meant the state had a chance to ensure diversity in the people who profit. The state promised to do that, but after more than a year, it has no majority Black-owned dispensary. From our member station WBEZ, Mariah Woelfel reports.

MARIAH WOELFEL, BYLINE: I want to start by telling you about one family's dream for their Chicago pot shop.

MON-CHERI ROBINSON: Now, the name of our dispensary was going to be The Gas Station.

WOELFEL: The Gas Station is the dream of Mon-Cheri Robinson, her brother, husband, cousin and aunt, who pooled their resources to apply for a license.

ROBINSON: When you think of The Gas Station, it's convenience. And anybody can go to The Gas Station. Grams can go to The Gas Station (laughter). Your aunt - anybody can go to The Gas Station. So that was the concept.

WOELFEL: They submitted their application in early 2020 and had high hopes. Because the process can be complicated, they even hired a consultant to help write their proposal, spending a whopping $80,000. But they thought it was money well spent because they were told the state wanted dispensary owners like their family, who live in areas impacted by the war on drugs.

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J B PRITZKER: Our state, once again, is a leader, putting forward the most equity-centric cannabis legalization in the nation.

WOELFEL: That's Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker at the bill signing in 2019. But more than a year after recreational pot hit the shelves, the $670 million made has gone mostly to white men. The state gave Illinois's existing medical dispensaries the opportunity to get started first. And that industry is not diverse. So the state set up a lottery process to hand out 75 new licenses meant for social equity applicants, people who've been impacted by the war on drugs.

But when the state and the private firm it hired to grade applications came out with the list of lottery finalists, they chose just 21 applicants for those 75 slots. Many of them were white, some political insiders, and the scoring was inconsistent. Rejected applicants started to sue. Now the state is redoing the whole process, giving a second chance to people who were initially rejected.

LA SHAWN FORD: The state of Illinois has recognized that the rollout was a failure.

WOELFEL: That's Illinois State Representative La Shawn Ford, who worked on the initial bill and is now trying to fix it. Ford points to what he sees as a major crack in the law - it allows people to get extra points on their application as long as they hire people impacted by the war on drugs.

FORD: So if I'm a multimillionaire or billionaire, I've never been impacted by a war on drugs, but if I go out and find someone that has a criminal record and say that I'm going to hire them, that qualifies me as a social equity applicant. And that's bad.

WOELFEL: As Illinois works to correct course, experts say states across the country should take notes. Beau Kilmer is a national drug policy expert at RAND Corporation.

BEAU KILMER: It's really important to be specific about what communities are we trying to help, you know, because if you start out and if the target group or the area is too large, that means the finite resources are going to be spread thin, and then there's also a higher risk of helping those who don't need it.

WOELFEL: Kilmer points out Illinois started selling recreational cannabis six months after passing the law, so hiccups were inevitable. But those hiccups have had real-life implications for people like Mon-Cheri Robinson, the dispensary applicant. She brings me back to the day those initial lottery results came out.

ROBINSON: I just sobbed. I felt like, wait a minute - was I dumb enough to even believe we could do this? Like, it was just so many different emotions.

WOELFEL: She's out the $80,000 she spent on her application, but Robinson is not giving up. She's part of a weekly working group with lawmakers and experts trying to fix the next lottery. And she's hopeful there will be a, quote-unquote, "Gas Station" that sells weed on Chicago's South Side in the future.

For NPR News, I'm Mariah Woelfel in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ST/MIC'S "THERE ARE MEMORIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.