Judge rules against marijuana craft grower applicants seeking immediate licenses

Robert McCoppin, Chicago Tribune

More than three dozen companies who won marijuana craft grower licenses will continue waiting for them after a court ruling kept the permits in limbo.

Cook County Judge Allen Walker ruled against the Illinois Craft Cannabis Association, which wanted him to require Gov. J.B. Pritzker to award the licenses.

By law, the 40 grower licenses were supposed to be issued by July 1, but Pritzker has not issued them, initially citing delays in reviewing the applications because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a ruling issued Christmas Eve, Walker wrote that the governor’s initial emergency order delaying the licenses was insufficient. But Walker also wrote that a later governor’s order clarified the delay was necessary because the pandemic has forced the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which is supposed to issue the licenses, to concentrate on oversight of meat and livestock facilities and the food supply chain.

“While (the later order) does not explicitly say: ‘IDOA’s issuing cannabis licenses by the (deadline) would have the effect of diverting needed resources from the pandemic effort thus making it more difficult for the governor to cope with the COVID-19 crisis ...’ that is the point implicitly being made,” the judge wrote.

Walker is due to consider additional issues raised in the lawsuit early next year.

Paul Magelli, spokesman for the craft growers’ association, said the group is “considering an appeal given the weakness of the judge’s order. … We plan to decide early this week.”

In addition to the craft grower licenses, the Pritzker administration has indefinitely delayed the issuance of infuser and transporter licenses, as well as licenses for 75 new recreational marijuana retail stores, which were due to be awarded May 1.

Just 21 applicants received perfect scores to qualify for a tiebreaking lottery to award the licenses. Some included politically connected or wealthy white owners, though the law was meant to encourage social equity applicants from areas hardest hit by the war on drugs.

Other applicants complained that they were never notified of deficiencies in their applications, as required by law, or that identical parts of different applications were scored differently.

To address those issues, the Pritzker administration is sending out new deficiency notices to allow applicants to correct problems and get rescored. Officials won’t say when the process will be completed and new licenses awarded.

The latest ruling was similar to a Sangamon County court ruling in November that allowed the state to continue rescoring the dispensary licenses.

Both successful and unsuccessful applicants say that the delay is costing them thousands of dollars in payroll and lease costs to keep their business groups intact, without knowing if they’ll be able to open.

Combined recreational and medical cannabis sales in Illinois are likely to exceed $1 billion in the debut year. Sales have generated more than $100 million in tax revenue.

rmccoppin@chicagotribune.com