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Op Ed – Time For The Illinois Governor To Step Up And Clean Up This Mess

Op Ed – Time For The Illinois Governor To Step Up And Clean Up This Mess

Having spent almost three decades as an Illinois lobbyist and government affairs consultant, I am very familiar with the sausage-making process that is public policy and familiar with the role of an Illinois Governor. I have developed what I call mental calluses; a defense mechanism that reminds me not to expect too much from the cumbersome, opaque and inconsistent performance of state government, even with the best of intentions from all involved.  And yet, after working on Illinois’ cannabis policy for the last five years, I must admit that I clearly lacked the imagination to anticipate the scope of the state’s failure in the cannabis licensing process. Instead of being the Gold Standard, our story is about to become a cautionary tale.

Yet, as I sit here, scratching my head and talking with outraged applicants, puzzled lawyers and disappointed lawmakers, it is clear that the current state of affairs cannot stand. While the letter of the law may have been followed in this process, the intent of the law has not been met. There is a way forward and it’s time for Governor Pritzker to step up, own up and clean up this mess. Here’s how.

1. Provide Full And Immediate Disclosure

Despite the promised openness, transparency and public engagement, the cannabis licensing process has been a black hole full of miscommunication, inconsistent and contradictory information as well as a lack of planning and bungling that left all of us guessing. One thing for sure — the cause of social equity is best served through full transparency. There are a lot of questions about the secretive license scoring process and there is nothing in Illinois’ cannabis law that prevents the Governor from immediate and full disclosure of this entire process.

We need to know how each application was scored and we need to know the true ownership structure of each applicant entity. What were the state’s instructions to consulting firm KPMG that was paid millions of dollars to score applications? Who did the scoring? What the professional experience (and maybe even the diversity) of the KPMG team involved in scoring applications? Who at the state supervised the process day to day? The truth will come out eventually. Hopefully, the Governor will provide a full accounting of the process before lawsuits force his hand.

2. Hit the Brakes

Licenses haven’t been issued yet. Clearly, the outcome of the licensing process is highly suspect. The state should do the obligatory naming and shaming of its contractor KPMG for its failures, and immediately announce they are suspending the program until a full forensic investigation is conducted. Sure, there will be lawsuits.

But does the Administration prefer to defend itself from lawsuits by the 20 or so “winners” or would the state prefer to defend itself against the lawsuits filed by the other 680 outraged applicants for cannabis dispensary licenses? Many of these applicants are regular people who invested their life savings to chase this dream. They deserve protections from arbitrary and poorly implemented licensing processes.

3. Regroup

Recognize and reassert the fact that, as part of the application process and in accordance with the law and the administrative rules, no cannabis license is a given. I am not a lawyer, but to my eye, each applicant should understand that licenses are and will always remain the property of the state and that a license can essentially be denied or revoked by the state at any time for any reason. This is no different than the state revoking a gaming license if they become aware of a casino operator’s “unsavory” business associations.

Finally, the state should address disappointed applicants. How can they – at least the reasonably high scoring ones — be made at least partially whole due to a flawed process? At the very least, can the state waive fees for the next round of applications and encourage them to participate again?

The bottom line is that the IDFPR announcement is the very first step in the licensing process. Not the last. The state has options on how to proceed. The ball is totally and completely in the Governor’s court. Will he remain silent and allow his minions to make excuses for the inexcusable? Or will he step up, fess up and clean up? Running and hiding behind state lawyers is not the solution, it’s what got us here in the first place.