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State’s largely white marijuana industry is booming

Flowering room at Revolution Enterprise's medical cannabis cultivation facility in Delavan.
Flowering room at Revolution Enterprise's medical cannabis cultivation facility in Delavan.

CHICAGO – Illinois’ marijuana industry is flourishing. More residents are buying the drug for medicinal use, and the state is on the brink of legalizing recreational use of cannabis, potentially creating opportunities for a new wave of entrepreneurs.

But right now, businesses in line to reap the financial rewards are overwhelmingly male and mostly white.

Seventeen companies own licenses to grow and process marijuana in Illinois. Most have CEOs or executive directors who are white, but exact ownership information is unknown.

The state denied a Freedom of Information Act request for data on individuals with ownership stakes in dispensaries and cultivation centers, saying the information was confidential.

The makeup of the nascent industry is not lost on the few minorities in leadership positions at Illinois cannabis companies, who worry about their role in a field that could generate sales of $224 million by 2022, compared with $136.5 million for medical marijuana last year. Illinois’ medical cannabis program limited ownership to a small group of companies with the ability to raise large amounts of money, but efforts are being made to expand access and increase minority participation.

“The challenge becomes ownership,” said Jamil Taylor, an African-American and vice president of business development at Chicago-based cannabis company Justice Grown. “You need so much capital, and you can’t go out and get a bank loan. If you don’t come from a wealthy background, your access to capital is very limited. How can you become an owner in the space?”

Others are asking the same question.

At Justice Grown’s cultivation facility in Effingham County, half of its roughly 30 employees are women or people of color. The company, which started in Illinois but expanded to four other states, conducts workshops at its headquarters in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, designed for minorities interested in winning a marijuana license. Chicago NORML, the Hyde Park-based branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, conducts classes to help underserved groups learn more about marijuana-related jobs.

The goal is to prepare more people to participate in the industry so they are ready if, as expected, Illinois legalizes marijuana for recreational use. “Everything can flourish if we do this the right way,” said Donte Townsend, co-founder of Chicago NORML.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker supports legalizing recreational marijuana, and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and state Sen. Heather Steans are drafting a legalization they hope to get passed by May. They have said they plan to add provisions to the bill that would encourage more minorities to start marijuana companies, and ensure that some of the revenue generated from sales goes back into communities hurt by the discriminatory war on drugs.

A priority of the bill is to make industry ownership data public, so minority participation can accurately be measured, Cassidy said.

Another measure under consideration is expanding the types of licenses available beyond the current cultivation and dispensary licenses. A business that processes or transports marijuana, or a smaller “craft” cultivation center, would have smaller capital needs, Cassidy said.

The Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois, a trade association representing growers and sellers, has been working with lawmakers on plans to include incubation programs in the bill.


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