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Cannabis sales are raking in billions in Illinois, but Black and Brown entrepreneurs are still in limbo with license delays

Black and Brown cannabis entrepreneurs are still in limbo with license delays 03:05

CHICAGO (CBS) -- This St. Patrick's Day, the State of Illinois released an update on another kind of green – the billions of dollars in legalized weed sold in Illinois without one new license winner cleared to open in more than two years.

CBS 2's Tara Molina has tracked this subject from the very beginning. She talked Thursday to two license winners who have been held up waiting to open their own businesses.

They have been held up for years now, and they have been stuck waiting seven months since winning their licenses in the state's lottery system to open businesses.

They say at this point, the state and legal delays aren't just hurting their bottom line - they're hurting Illinois.

Since recreational marijuana was legalized in Illinois at the start of 2020, the state has seen more than $2 billion in cannabis sales. Indeed, legalized pot is a lucrative cash business in Illinois - to say the least - as the state also rakes in hundreds of millions in tax dollars, and the same medical marijuana business owners get richer.

"I just want my shot. I just want my shot," said Frank Cowan. "There's no minority representation."

Illinois promised from the beginning to prioritize applicants like Cowan in its equity-focused legalization plan. Instead, they are still stuck waiting from the sidelines.

Not one new license holder has opened up shop in Illinois.

"Kudos to JB Pritzker, Governor Pritzker, for coming down with this social equity program - but it's been a complete disaster." Cowan said.

Cowan grew up on the city's South Side, and remembers something he told his mom as a teenager.

"(I said), 'Marijuana will be legal one day,'" Cowan said. "And she looked at me and she said, 'No it won't, never.'"

Now, decades later, indeed marijuana is legal. And Cowan finally has his foot in the door as a social equity applicant and dispensary license winner.

But the door won't open.

Illinois cannabis license winners still waiting 02:51

Through the major state delays blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic, and now a months-long legal battle over the state's licensing process, Cowan and every other license winner is still stuck.

A Cook County judge has a hold on the 185 dispensary licenses.

"There's going to be people that can't afford to open," Cowan said.

But it's not just weed dispensary license winners who are stuck. No one new is harvesting marijuana either.

"There should be Black and Brown brands on the shelves," said Akele Parnell, an attorney who is on the board of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "It's ridiculous, because legalization was all supposed to be about racial equity."

Parnell has his craft grow license now, but is still waiting on his dispensary license.

"You know, the last thing Illinois wants is for investors to lose interest in Black and Brown companies, because it took so long and maybe some of the opportunity was missed," Parnell said.

Cowan and Parnell both said at the end of the day, the red tape they're stuck in isn't just hurting them.

"The State of Illinois is missing out on big tax dollars," Cowan said.

Cowan is partnered with Planet 13 Marijuana Dispensary in Las Vegas, and will lead Planet 13 Illinois once he can open. The partnership is what has allowed him to hang on, financially, through all of the delays.

The hope right now is that those licenses are released soon - with work happening on a state and city level now to try to prevent all of this from repeating itself, and with 55 new dispensary license winners expected this year.

The State of Illinois released the following statement:

"This announcement is for 55 new conditional adult use cannabis dispensary licenses to be issued through a lottery process later this year. This streamlined process is the result of extensive discussions between the Pritzker Administration and stakeholders. Due to a court order, IDFPR cannot issue the 185 conditional adult use cannabis dispensary licenses to recipients selected in the 2021 lotteries at this time pending ongoing litigation.

"Adult use cannabis monthly sales figures may be found on IDFPR's Adult Use Cannabis Program webpage or by going here. Tax revenue figures for adult use cannabis sales may be found on the Illinois Department of Revenue's website."

This week, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced that it is filing rules to simplify the cannabis dispensary license application process and break down barriers for social equity applicants.

From day one, Illinois has been dedicated to leading the nation in an equity-centric approach to legalizing cannabis, and these proposed changes to the application process will make it much easier for social equity applicants to pursue licenses." Gov. Pritzker said in a news release. "I appreciate all the feedback we have received from stakeholders since the start of the cannabis program, whose work informed this proposal and is continuing to make Illinois' growing cannabis industry the most equitable in the nation."

Under the planned new rules, applicants will be able to apply online with certain basic information – including the name of the organization, a list of principal officers, contact information, and a $250 fee. During the lottery process for the 55 new conditional licenses, applicants and principal officers may not be on more than one lottery entry.

If deemed eligible for a one of the 55 new conditional licenses, applicants will need to meet social equity criteria and will have 45 days to do so.

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