Entrepreneurs from communities hit by war on drugs vying for a slice of cannabis industry

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CHICAGO — With recreational marijuana now legal in Illinois, aspiring dispensary owners lined up at the Thompson Center to submit applications for state approval ahead of the 4 p.m. deadline Thursday.

Lawmakers behind legalization pressed for measures that would ensure communities hit by the war on drugs would also enjoy the benefits. So "social equity" applicants from these communities can get their application fees cut in half and get access to a low-interest loan fund.

"The current cannabis landscape presents itself as an uneven playing field," entrepreneur Joe Sorge said. "Those of us who risked our lives and our freedom to establish and sustain this now legit market now find ourselves on the outside looking in."

Sorge was one of just over three dozen black and brown entrepreneurs who arrived at the Thompson Center on a bus from Pilsen Thursday, looking to submit their own applications for an Illinois cannabis dispensary license.

The Majority-Minority Group has been helping these 38 minority-led teams navigate the cannabis license using the social equity application process, which can be tough to navigate as well as expensive. Filing an application costs thousands of dollars.

The only places initially approved to sell recreational pot were those already licensed to dispense medical marijuana, but few if any of them are minority-owned. So Ron Holmes of the Majority-Minority Group says they're helping minorities navigate the application process so they have a chance at, "getting a slice of the pie of what’s becoming a huge industry here in Illinois."

The deadline to win one of the 75 available dispensary licenses was Thursday at 4 p.m. Leyla Bitoy Dillon wants to open a dispensary in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.

"We already have very strong community partnerships. We’re looking forward to continuing to establish and integrate into that community," Dillon said.

For entrepreneurs, there are millions at stake as the state's review gets underway.

"We’ll spend the next few weeks going through those applications so we’ll hopefully have an industry that looks very different than the way it does anyway else, frankly in the world," said Toi Hutchison, a Cannabis Advisor to Governor J.B. Pritzker.

According to the mayor's office, Chicago is expected to take in $3.5 million in pot tax revenue this year.

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