Illinois delays are typical of legal marijuana programs | WBEZ
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Illinois delays are typical of legal marijuana programs

Uncertainty continues with Illinois’ medical marijuana pilot program, but a delay might be par for the course in this federally illegal industry.

In Evanston, city officials are hoping to get a medical marijuana dispensary at a long vacant retail space.

“It’s part of a major redevelopment that occurred in the late '90s, early 2000s which includes the Century Theater. Unfortunately, it’s been vacant since it’s opened,” said Evanston Senior Economic Development Coordinator Paul Zalmezak.

The city was considering a coffee shop for this space, but it started getting several requests regarding medical marijuana businesses.

“I don’t think there’s a more unique use out there for us than this medical cannabis dispensary concept. It’s new customers. It’s a new source of tax revenue and it’s a service that people really need,” Zalmezak said.

Evanston issued letters of contingent lease approval with a number of dispensary applicants. The site could be the only municipally-owned property in the state used for medical marijuana, but for now, the city needs to sit tight.

Gov. Pat Quinn left office without awarding licenses for dispensaries and cultivation centers, leaving the program at a standstill. Now, Gov. Bruce Rauner is conducting a full legal review of the process.

It’s left applicants like Brad Zerman in limbo.

“If this drags on too long, there’s really nothing preventing Paul [Zalmezak] and his team from moving forward with this coffee shop. You know, there’s a lot of coffee in the area, but there’s not a lot of cannabis,” he said.

Zerman’s application for this Evanston location is ranked second according to the list left behind by Quinn’s administration. He’s ranked first and fourth in two other districts.

Unlike other applicants, Zerman’s lucky he isn’t losing money on rent or holding fees for a proposed dispensary site. The landlord for his Oak Park location ended up investing in his business, and he’s reserved the storefront for Zerman. But it isn’t guaranteed.

“When we started the process, Oak Park, the shopping center’s at North and Harlem Avenues. There were maybe three empty spaces when we started and now we’re the only one. So there’s a strong demand for that market over there,” he said.

Some applicants are also worried about losing investors, that could be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Marijuana is an already risky business even with guaranteed licenses.

“If I was involved in one of these situations, I would be trying to get out of it. All bets are off. Who knows where it’s going to end up,” said Dooma Wendschuh, CEO of Ebbu, a Colorado cannabis company.

He says the delay will likely see the competition thin out, but that might be for the best.

“Something that happens this early on in the game that’s going to prevent you from seeing it all the way through, then you probably would’ve gone out of business pretty early,” Wendschuh said.

The pilot program is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2017. Wendschuh wonders if there’s enough time for the program to be successful.

Still, Wendschuh says delays in getting the marijuana program off the ground is nothing unique to Illinois. There’s a lot of hurdles trying to move something federally illegal into a political space. He says rules are always changing, even in Colorado where medical and recreational marijuana is legal.

“The rule of thumb is that if the governing body doesn’t give you a timeline upon which they will do something, it’s pretty much a guarantee that it will take a very, very long time. Months, maybe a year,” he said.

Zerman, who feels confident he’ll get at least one dispensary license says he understands the need for a legal review.

“If I was Gov. Rauner, I don’t think I’d do anything different right now because he doesn’t really know anything about the process that went on since September with the prior administration,” Zerman said.

Gov. Rauner says his administration will soon announce the conclusion of the review and how best to proceed.

Susie An is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @soosieon.

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