Spark’d, a dispensary at 21st and Wabash, is one of only a handful of recreational cannabis stores on the South Side. Credit: Jim Daley
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When Illinois legalized the sale of recreational cannabis in 2020, Zack Bernard and two colleagues pooled thousands of dollars to apply for a license. Bernard, a Black man who owned 51 percent of the company, hoped to get licensed under a social-equity program the state offers to people whose communities have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. Bernard also took a sixteen-hour course to become a certified cannabis vendor.

“We did our research, we made sure we crossed our i’s and dotted our t’s,” Bernard said. “We got the mock application first, and then we got up with the people who said they’d help [us] understand the laws. It was supposed to be a real tedious application. We went through every detail of the application to get as many points as possible. We brought in enough people that covered all bases.”

Social-equity licenses are available to people who had a low-level cannabis conviction on their records, are victims of gun violence, or live in economically disadvantaged areas. For a $250 fee (lowered from $2,500 last year), applicants enter a lottery and hope they’re selected. Last year, 2,700 people applied; only twenty-seven got licenses.  

Bernard didn’t get a license. He said that in hindsight, the people he worked with were not as “legitimate” as he’d believed, but added that he’s doubtful he will ever know why his application was rejected because in the first year, the state didn’t award any licenses to Black vendors.

“Once I seen that on the news, I just gave up on even reaching out to those people anyway,” he said. “I really gave up the whole dream of having a dispensary. I just said I wasn’t even going to worry about that anymore.”

Since Gov. Pritzker legalized recreational cannabis, dispensaries have sprouted all over the North Side—most of them operated by white-owned businesses. But the fight for social equity in Black and Latinx communities on the South and West Sides that were heavily impacted by the war on drugs has been an ongoing struggle, rife with unkept promises. Chief among them is the lack of investment in dispensaries on the South Side.

While there are more than a dozen recreational dispensaries scattered across the North Side—some of which are multiple storefronts of single companies—there are only a handful south of Roosevelt Road. 

Doug Kelly, executive director of the Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition, said that grassroots organizations are still struggling to get the state to keep its word to Black and Brown communities.

“We still got a long way to go, but we’re still fighting for some of the basic things that got messed up in the beginning,” Kelly said. “And the dispensaries still hadn’t gotten any money from the state, like the loans and things of that nature, like they promised everyone in the beginning.”

Kelly said that the red tape is twofold for dispensaries on the South Side because of zoning and funding. Dispensaries require a special-use zoning permit, which Kelly said is a lengthy process, adding that funding out South is lacking compared to the North Side. By his account, some vendors who are unable to obtain a building within a certain amount of time lose their licenses. 

Steven C. Philpott Jr., a cannabis researcher and board member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, said the application itself was enough for him to back out of the process altogether.

“Somebody said, ‘What’s your background? Why didn’t you apply for a dispensary license?’” Philpott said. “[But] as soon as I read the application, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a hoax,’” because the price of applying alone was a barrier.

According to Kelly, another issue South Side communities face is the fact that the state approved only the first fifty-five dispensaries that opened in Illinois to sell medical marijuana, which people with qualifying medical conditions can buy without paying high sales tax. South Siders with medical cards have to travel miles to use them. 

“Especially when there’s a dispensary close to their house, they should be able to get their discount there as well. So that’s one of our biggest pushes,” Kelly said. “If the users are still suffering, having a hard time getting the distillate and things of that means that they need to infuse their products. The prices are all over the place.”

As a medical patient himself, Kelly recalls having to travel miles to get the cannabis he needed because the dispensary near him did not carry it.

“People like kids with seizures and stuff with their patch, they were having to travel to a different state sometimes because the product just wasn’t available here no more,” he said. “It’s just [about] accessibility. Why should somebody have to drive to another state to get what we should already have on the shelf?” 

Lingering mistrust of cannabis safety and legality could be another factor behind the lack of dispensaries on the South Side.

“I think we all realize that education is the thing we really are missing,” Philpott said. “We are very divided in our neighborhoods, even our neighborhoods have different beliefs. If we’re not all educated on the same type of thing, it’s very difficult cohesively to say as a people collectively, we can do something successfully.”

He added that in some communities, there has been pushback from residents who feel dispensaries bring a negative connotation to their neighborhoods, akin to liquor stores.

According to Kelly, dispensaries have the opposite effect. “It’s actually bringing up [home] values,” he said. “They said it was gonna be a lot of crime, but that’s just not happening,” he added.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which hit three months after legalization, also impacted the ability of small companies to get started. The pandemic decreased the already scarce amount of funding sources, which held many social equity applicants back.

“The money just dried up,” Kelly said. “That [was] industry-wide. It’s hard finding money [for] cannabis everywhere, because it’s still not federally legal. So, banks can’t give loans like a normal small [business] would have access to. …During that two-year time, people lost a lot of their investors during that pandemic.” 

Bernard noted that while dispensaries are rare south of Roosevelt, there are hundreds of liquor stores on the South and West Sides. While liquor licenses also require applicants to navigate a maze of red tape (and often require the right alderman’s tacit support), the application is less than $5,000, and there are no federal prohibitions on selling booze. 

Bernard said cannabis dispensary licensing should be treated more like liquor. “If you qualify for a liquor license, you can purchase a liquor license,” he said. “I don’t think [cannabis licenses] should be treated like a lottery ticket.”

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Mark Braboy is a photographer and journalist from the Southeast Side who covers arts, entertainment, and cannabis.

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