Hopeful marijuana moguls sue state in pursuit of a dispensary license


Illustration by Anna Souter

Cannabis dispensary license hopefuls sue the state after not being awarded a license.

Ella Jeffries, Assistant Copy Editor

After Illinois lawmakers voted to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis in 2019, business partners Jermell Chavis and Evanston resident Jonah Wine applied for a dispensary license, hoping to open an Evanston dispensary. 

But after three years of applications and obtaining a perfect application score, the two have not yet been granted a license.

Cannabis is something Chavis has always been interested in. After returning home from serving two tours in Iraq as a marine combat veteran, he’s motivated to attain justice for his home community, which was hit hardest by the war on drugs. 

Chavis said the Black and brown people from his community on Chicago’s West Side were heavily criminalized for something that “should never have been illegal in the first place.”

Wine and Chavis are not alone in their struggles. Evanston’s 5th Ward Ald. Bobby Burns also seeks to open a dispensary in addition to the city’s singular store, Zen Leaf on Maple Avenue. Burns said he wants to make the cannabis industry more inclusive, addressing inequities that disproportionately affect marginalized groups in Illinois. 

Chavis has an expungeable cannabis arrest, qualifying him as a social equity applicant. This is an initiative created to help erase barriers to groups historically impacted by harsh cannabis law enforcements. Illinois also gives preference to veteran-owned businesses. 

Once they submitted their application in 2019, Wine said he was irked that their top-scoring application did not receive a license. Meanwhile, Wine said applicants who were connected to multistate operators and billion dollar companies got accepted, even without a perfect score.

“You receive a license just because you’re rich, it makes no sense,” Wine said. “We’re helping to bring inspiration to communities and helping to fight the war on drugs but we’re being shut out completely.”  

Chavis said that there are a limited number of licenses available and the hefty fees attached to them, ranging from $2,500 to $5,000, gave an advantage to multistate operators who were already billion dollar companies. Some submitted over $250,000 in application fees, he said. 

Chavis said the duo could only afford one application. 

“The fact of the matter is the majority of licenses went to those that were tested multistate operators or politically connected,” Chavis said. 

Chavis and Wine sued the state in 2021.

Their attorney, Dan Shapiro, says the lawsuit involves claims of violation of due process and equal protection and, as of last week, is now up on appeal. This means that the appellate court has 35 days to file a response brief. It will then make a decision on whether it will hear oral arguments, or make a decision based on the briefs. 

“I couldn’t help them directly on the application,” Shapiro said. “And then my role grew with them once they realized they wanted to contest the fact that they weren’t awarded the license.” 

No matter the outcome, the two said they are going to keep pushing until they see their ambitions come to fruition. The two bonded over their strong passions for hip-hop, fashion and pop-culture, and they want to bring that to their dispensary.

“We’re trying to bring a new take on the weed game,” Chavis said. “We want an urban, hip-hop feel, something to counter the (hemp and CBD online store) Cookies.” 

After getting their license, the pair hopes to open dispensaries on Howard St. in Evanston, as well as in Chavis’s home neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. Evanston is looking to bring more dispensaries to the city to use the 3% cannabis tax to fund the city’s Restorative Housing reparations program.

Chavis said being able to provide economic support and help develop his community will make the process worth it.

“Getting our license would feel like winning the championship,” Chavis said. 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @ellajeffries 

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