Illinois Maps “Disproportionately Impacted Areas” for Its Cannabis Social Equity Program

October 9, 2019

Illinois, where cannabis legalization will take effect on January 1, has begun the process of granting recreational cannabis business licenses. After receiving applications between December and January, it will license 75 new stores in May 2020.

On October 1, the state released eligibility data and requirements for its cannabis social equity program⁠—which by law is supposed to create opportunity in the new industry for people who are unfairly targeted by the War on Drugs.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) detailed who is eligible for the state’s social equity program based on factors like criminal record, income level and place of residency. It also released a map of US Census tracts that it defines as “Disproportionately Impacted Areas”—places with high rates of cannabis arrests and convictions, as well as poverty and unemployment. Residency in a disproportionately impacted area, among other criteria, may confer social equity program eligibility.

Map of Illinois showing “Disproportionately Impacted Areas” in blue. Image via Illinois DCEO.


The social equity program will provide benefits such as “technical assistance” in completing a business plan or license application. It also discounts license application fees, and offers low-interest business loans.

The cannabis business licensing process in Illinois, as in many other states, is difficult and costly to navigate. “The application envisions business plans of up to 30 pages, security plans up to 50 pages, and operations plans up to 40 pages,” reported Crain’s Chicago Business. “Proposed floor plans could run up to 10 pages and are detailed down to the locations of each computer, cash register and toilet.” It estimated that each business will spend $1 million on average to open a cannabis store.

“There is funding from the state available for social equity applicants that qualify, but the money for this program is coming from applications and licensing fees, so the state needs people to apply for these business licenses to make that funding available,” Alexandria Boutros of Cannabis Equity Illinois Coordinators told Filter. “Further, even the discounted application fees for social equity applicants are still non-refundable and could be a costly investment for someone who doesn’t have a lot of money—especially if they don’t receive a license.”

The recent developments came shortly after Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, who signed the state’s legalization bill in June, announced in late September that he is appointing a new cannabis regulation oversight officer: Illinois State Senator Toi Hutchinson (D-Park Forest).

Hutchinson was a key proponent of the legalization legislation. She will be tasked with implementing the state’s cannabis social equity provisions—including conducting a study on what barriers to entry or discrimination exist in the new industry.

Illinois, like its counterparts including Massachusetts and California, is giving cities and towns the power to decide if they will permit cannabis sales. Several Illinois municipalities have already banned sales either temporarily or permanently. If more follow suit, it may strain efforts to create economic opportunities in the new industry for people most targeted by the War on Drugs.

The state is also advancing in its efforts to expunge or relieve certain cannabis convictions, as Filter previously reported.

Boutros said her organization is closely watching how legalization is implemented in Illinois. She criticized the state for not creating a dedicated cannabis regulatory commission, as Massachusetts and California have. She also said Illinois has not been vocally promoting and raising awareness of its licensing application process and its equity components.

“We need an online tool to promote information straight from the state,” she said. “It would ideally provide information about the licenses and how to apply, and record expungement or sealing resources, as well as Know Your Rights information. Because this tool does not exist, the burden of promoting this information is shifted onto community organizations, already strained for resources.”

Photo by Get Budding on Unsplash.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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