Ald. Bobby Burns cultivates new approach to the business and politics of marijuana


Illustration by Anna Souter

Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) is the founder of cannabis company Herban Garden, which was awarded one of the first 40 marijuana craft growth licenses in Illinois.

Saul Pink, Assistant City Editor

Eighteen years ago, cannabis was illegal across most of the United States, and Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) was an Evanston Township High School student who occasionally smoked marijuana with his friends.

Today, recreational cannabis is legal in Illinois, and Burns serves as the 5th Ward alderperson on City Council. He’s become a pioneer of a more progressive approach to regulating recreational drugs — and a fledgling entrepreneur in the Illinois cannabis industry.

Three months after his election in April 2021, Burns’ company, Herban Garden, was awarded one of the first 40 marijuana craft growth licenses in the state. Burns hopes to construct an eco-friendly greenhouse in Chicago, where his team can cultivate the crop and sell products at dispensaries.

“I realized that I need to be a part of this industry so I can help ensure, even by my participation, that marginalized groups and minority groups are represented in the industry,” Burns said.

The path has not been smooth for Burns. Still, he said the experience has been a lesson in the realities of business and politics — from financing a startup in an evolving industry to eliminating cannabis testing for Evanston employees. 

Growing pains

At 36 years old, Burns said he no longer consumes cannabis, but he recognizes its benefits. 

“I’ve always understood cannabis and appreciated its ability to heal and to help people manage stress levels,” he said.

He’s also working to make the new industry more inclusive and address the inequities of Illinois’ earlier drug policies that disproportionately affected marginalized groups. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people were 7.5 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession in Illinois when the plant was illegal. 

While Burns’ goals are broad, the details of building Herban Garden have proven difficult. 

Craft growth applicants must present a detailed plan for how they will keep their facility secure and consistently grow the plant, as well as how the business will ultimately be profitable. Most applications are more than 100 pages long. 

Burns called on Justice Cannabis Co., a Chicago-based multistate cannabis company that promotes inclusivity, for free assistance in filing the application. The company has helped many applicant groups with the process.

Cole Eastman, an attorney on Burns’ team, said some applicants pay consultants up to six figures for help. 

“Just because your cultivation plan indicates that you know how to grow cannabis does not necessarily mean the owners of that company know how to grow cannabis,” Eastman said.

Herban Garden also applied for the license as a social equity applicant — a program designed to lower barriers into the industry. To qualify, a majority owner of the company must be an Illinois resident who lives in an area disproportionately impacted by cannabis-related arrests, has been arrested for a cannabis-related offense or has a family member who was arrested for a cannabis-related offense.

Illinois also gives preference to veteran-owned businesses. To qualify as a social equity applicant, Burns brought on his uncle, Reginald Burns, as a majority owner. A Vietnam veteran, his uncle is also from Englewood, Chicago, which has a Black population of more than 90%. 

When Herban Garden was awarded the license in July 2021, Eastman said he was speechless.

“I couldn’t work for the rest of the day,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was really exciting.”

Raising seed money

After obtaining a license, Herban Garden struggled to raise funds and get the business operational. 

Burns said if the company doesn’t raise the $10 million necessary for its launch, it will either sell its license or merge with a larger cannabis company, which goes against his goal of starting an independent, minority-owned business.

Evanston native Asia Lustig, a former Justice Cannabis Co. employee who met Burns when she was an intern for the city, is a part-owner of Herban Garden.

“These licenses are seen as a golden ticket to making money, and that’s really not true if you don’t already have money,” Lustig said. 

Herban Garden was conditionally approved a year ago for the state’s Social Equity Cannabis Loan Program, which provides low interest loans to social equity applicants. But Eastman said the company still hasn’t received the loan.

Burns applied for a property in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood for his greenhouse. It is eligible for the Chicago Recovery Grant, which aims to fund local development in under-resourced neighborhoods. Herban Garden has yet to hear back about the grant.

Illinois craft growers are initially allowed a maximum 5,000 square feet for cannabis plants. Growers can eventually obtain approval from the Illinois Department of Agriculture to increase in increments of 3,000 square feet, maxing out at 14,000 square feet.

Scott Redman, the founder of the Illinois Independent Craft Growers Association, said this rule makes it hard to quickly start a profitable business. 

“People say, ‘Oh, it’s just growing weed,’” Redman said. “But no, it’s growing a very specific plant to very specific and high standards … the final product has to be as consistent as pharmaceuticals.”

Harvesting new ideas

Along with Burns, cannabis also holds particular importance for Evanston at large: the city’s 3% tax on recreational cannabis funds its initial reparations program, the Restorative Housing Program. 

However, only 16 of 132 eligible recipients were paid in the city’s first round of reparations payments, which grant each person $25,000 to use on property purchases, mortgage payments or housing repairs. Evanston currently has only one dispensary: Zen Leaf on Maple Avenue.

Burns, a member of the Reparations Committee, said Evanston should use the program as an incentive for dispensaries to open up in the city.

“​​We’ve tied the success of cannabis to this important social initiative, which gives us every incentive not only to get you here, but make sure you’re successful,” he said.

Burns said it is difficult for craft growers to launch in Evanston due to a lack of empty warehouse space for growth facilities. Evanston’s cannabis tax only applies to sales at dispensaries within the city. 

With his business, Burns hopes to prove that local politicians can balance public service with other jobs. Burns said the $15,990 annual salary for councilmembers and lack of funds for alderpeople to hire staff make it difficult for lower- and middle-income candidates to justify running for office. 

Burns also wants to “address the stigma” around cannabis users — something he pushes for as the 5th Ward’s representative. 

In May, City Council passed a resolution proposed by Burns that eliminated cannabinoid screening for city employee applicants. Revised parameters, which passed Monday, allow cannabinoid testing for “safety sensitive” positions and “instances of reasonable suspicion.”

Burns said his ultimate goal is to create an environmentally sustainable business that educates users about responsible cannabis use.

“Even places like Evanston are still not going to allow you to show up completely — with a certain level of nanograms in your system,” Burns said. “We want to educate people about the power of this plant and how to use it responsibly, so that they continue to do the work that they want to do.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @saullpink

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