A Year After Legalization, Illinois’ Pot Industry Is A Mess

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A year ago, the Illinois legislature became the first in the country to legalize commercial marijuana. In the lead-up to the passage of the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, lawmakers declared Illinois would be the first state to “get it right” and “set the standard” when it comes to social equity in the marijuana industry.

One year on, the same sad story in other legalized states appears to be playing out in Illinois as well: The rich keep getting richer, corruption abounds, the illicit market is exploding and the promises of social equity remain evasive.

From the very beginning of this “experiment” in legalization, social justice was an afterthought. In order to begin legal sales as early as possible, existing medical marijuana license holders and multistate operators where given the green light to sell marijuana. This meant that of the 11 marijuana storefronts in the city of Chicago, not a single one would be owned and operated by a person of color.

This rightfully led members of the City Council’s Black Caucus to revolt and threaten to delay the implementation of sales. Instead, arm-twisting from industry lobbyists, along with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, led the council to allow commercialization to move forward. As it stands, there is not a single marijuana dispensary in Chicago that is owned by a minority.

“The social equity licensing process will work to smooth everything out,” said Pritzker, and state law mandated that licenses were to be handed out by April 30, 2020.

Yet again, another failed promise.

What actually happened was very different. The lottery process benefited wealthy industry types and political insiders. When the finalists for social equity licenses were announced, state Rep. La Shawn Ford of Chicago lamented: “Anybody that thought that they had a chance to get into cannabis with a fair shot, it seems as though they were wrong.”

Today, while these social equity applicants are forced to wait on the sidelines until the licensing system is fixed, white-owned multibillion-dollar multistate and multinational marijuana companies are increasing their market share and continue to reap the profits of a year of explosive growth.

“Marijuana as social justice” may have been an industry slogan, but it also is a marketing ruse.

But it would be disingenuous to say that Illinois’ first year of marijuana sales wasn’t a big one, with the state claiming to have sold upward of a billion dollars’ worth of pot. However, this is likely unsustainable. A quick scroll through Twitter and Reddit threads will show you a problem that Illinois will have coming to roost soon: People are incredibly frustrated with how expensive legal weed is.

The average cost for marijuana in an Illinois shop is about double what it is in Colorado. As such, and as we’ve seen in every other state that has legalized, the illicit market continues to reign supreme. The solution, according to the pot profiteers, is to add more licenses for growers. But given what we’ve seen from the disastrous rollout of social equity licenses, I wouldn’t expect this to do anything but perpetuate the social justice crisis that is unfolding before our eyes.

Alternatively, the state could lower taxes on pot, but then you’re left with even less marijuana revenue — which already isn’t enough to cover the societal costs associated with legalization (like car crashes by impaired drivers). And you’re losing tax revenue.

It’s still too early to see solid data on how legalization has affected use rates, arrests, illicit trade and drugged driving, but given how Illinois has fit the norm for every other state on the failures of social justice, it stands to reason we can expect to see the similar concerning trends on these issues too.

So where should we go from here? At the very least, the legislature needs to clean up the law. We need potency limits to stop dangerous 99% waxes and dabs from being sold. We need to restrict advertising and opening times among the retail industry.