Cannabis advocates ask for changes in state law to provide protections for patients, business owners and motorists

Advocates called Tuesday for changes to help medical cannabis patients and to broaden opportunities in the marijuana industry.

The Alliance for Cannabis Equity, a collective of social justice advocates, medical caretakers and trade associations, is seeking the changes to be combined in state law under an omnibus bill.

For medical patients, the group called for making curbside or drive-thru pickup permanent and for buying cannabis tax-free at any dispensary. For motorists, police would be prohibited from using cannabis as probable cause to make a stop. People with prior criminal convictions would be allowed to work in the industry; craft growers would get more space to cultivate their crop; and a single agency would replace the myriad agencies that regulate the industry.

“No substantive social equity law has been passed for two years, and action is desperately needed to address many issues,” said Douglas Kelly of Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition.

In the rush to make money off the industry, medical patients and Black and brown business owners have been left out, advocates said. Though a few Black-owned dispensaries or growers have opened, the owners of cannabis companies in Illinois remain almost exclusively wealthy and white.

Previous legislation tried to increase minority ownership by giving advantages in licensing to “social equity” applicants, generally defined as those who have prior low-level marijuana convictions, or live in an area with low income or high arrest rates.

But factors due to COVID-19 and complaints and litigation about the application scoring process delayed licensing for two years.

Now, many new recreational grower and dispensary license holders can’t get enough money to open their businesses. That’s why dispensary licensees want to change the rules to allow them to sell ownership shares in return for investments.

On the medical side, medical patients stand to lose curbside pickup on June 30, unless the COVID-era policy is made permanent. One proposal would extend curbside or drive-thru service to recreational customers as well.

Another proposal would let patients buy tax-free from any dispensary — not just the 55 licensed medical cannabis sites.

“This seems like a no-brainer for patients to have better access,” said Katie Sullivan, a nurse practitioner who founded Modern Compassionate Care in Chicago. “That would be the biggest impact and easiest change, and it would really improve things for patients.”

Some downstate patients have to drive two hours or more to get their preferred form of cannabis, such as tinctures or transdermal patches.

“It’s important for us to stand together for small business owners, consumers and medical patients,” founding Chicago NORML member Kiana Hughes said. “… Social equity licensees continue to suffer and lose money every day. … We’re calling on our elected officials to pass substantive social equity-focused legislation this session.”

Rep. LaShawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, has led a cannabis working group that’s met to address some of these issues. He hopes to have a single bill to encompass many of these problems before the General Assembly adjourns its session, as scheduled for May 19.