Illinoisans disappointed but not surprised by results of social equity lottery

Last month the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced the results of three lotteries to award cannabis dispensary licenses prioritizing social equity applicants. And while the intentions of the program initially offered promise, a repeatedly delayed start, multiple lawsuits, and disappointing results played out as classic corrupt Illinois politics.

Toi Hutchinson, a senior cannabis advisor to Governor J.B. Pritzker claimed that “social equity and justice are the heart and soul of the Adult-Use Cannabis Program in Illinois.” Similarly, Joe Caltabiano, CEO of cannabis SPAC Choice Consolidation Corp. praised the Social Equity Justice Involved Lottery as “a true equity program that acknowledges the past and sets a precedent for how the process can be managed moving forward.”

However, the results of the lottery have left many Illinoisans questioning the truth of this so-called equity, critiquing the “precedent” this initiative has set, and considering how to move forward as an industry against the powers of state-regulated systemic injustices.

The Social Equity Justice Involved Lottery was meant to encourage Black and Brown ownership in a largely white male industry. To combat the disproportionate effects of the war on drugs against communities of color, the qualifications for a social equity application required that a majority ownership was held by a person who has lived in an impacted area 5 out of the last 10 years, has had an arrest or conviction for a cannabis-related offense, or is a family member of an individual harmed by the war on drugs.

Self-described veterans of the drug war, such as Michael Malcolm of WeedTravelFood Consulting, spent a non-refundable $2500 per entry into the lottery system to prove their social equity qualification. However, as Malcolm points out in his editorial, the system allowed an unlimited number of applications for a limited number of licenses for the first two lotteries. The social so-called equity applicants were playing against the same mega cannabis corporations that would have been privileged with or without the lottery.

The long-awaited results affirm that the focus of this initiative was never actually on supporting communities but rather on sustaining capital. Those who paid the most played the most and will continue to make the most in a burgeoning market.

The cannabis industry, both in Illinois and across the nation, must interrogate the ways in which it is complicit in systemic inequities. What would true equity look like in the market, and how can it be realized in a state-regulated industry?

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