‘A slap in the face’: Minority cannabis dispensary applicant upset about same block pot shops

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO – Politicians praised Illinois’ marijuana law as a national model when it passed back in 2019 because of its emphasis on social equity.

But nearly 18 months after the first pot shop opened in Illinois, there is not a single dispensary owned by a minority led investment group.

“That’s where I get frustrated,” says Thomas Wheeler, who is African American and part of a venture that applied for dispensary licenses. “While we wait a year, they’re getting richer and richer and richer.”

Adding to his frustration are two dispensaries across the street from one another on West Randolph, in one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods.  

One opened recently and the other appears to be in progress, a sign in its window saying, “coming soon.”

State law says pot shops are not to be within 1,500 feet of each other.

But a state spokesman says the shops were allowed there because the license for each was approved on the same day. So, at the time, “there were no such dispensaries within 1,500 feet of either applicant,” the spokesman wrote in an email.

Wheeler called the state’s explanation, “a slap in the face. I think it’s disrespect for social equity.”

The first round of licenses for minority-led ownership groups were supposed to be awarded by May 1, 2020.

But even those with perfect application scores, including Wheeler’s venture, are still waiting.

The state has blamed the delay on the pandemic.

Meanwhile, established cannabis companies are snapping up locations in the city’s hottest neighborhoods.

There is concern that because of the 1,500-foot rule, minority groups, once they do obtain licenses, will be shut out of the best locations.

“Illinois with the greatest intentions had the biggest, I would say failure in the rollout of the cannabis industry,” says state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago).

Ford recently introduced legislation to eliminate the 1,500-foot rule for minority-owned dispensaries.

It would need the approval of the general assembly and the governor’s signature for the changes to take effect.

But not everyone wants to see that happen.

A longtime West Loop resident says he’s concerned the neighborhood already has too many pot shops.

“It’s kind of overkill,” he says.

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