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Jermell Chavis is no stranger to war. He served two tours in Iraq and is a marine combat veteran.

But he said nothing was harder on him than returning home after serving his country only to face a war on drugs in his home community on Chicago’s West Side. He said he still walks through his neighborhood every day and sees the vacant lots and abandoned buildings, which to him represent the effects of law enforcement criminalizing cannabis in marginalized, Black and Brown communities. 

Jermell Chavis. Credit: Photo provided

“Cannabis wasn’t a gateway drug for us. It was the gateway charge into the system,” Chavis said. “It was a reason for us to be pulled over, harassed, searched without warrants. It was the quickest way to violate our civil rights.”

Growing up, he lived with his mother for several years on the Rogers Park side of Howard Street. He said he remembers walking through Calvary Cemetery to get to basketball courts in Evanston because it was safer to play there than in the parks in his neighborhood. 

Today, Chavis is working with his friend and business partner, Evanston resident Jonah Wine, to obtain a cannabis dispensary license to bring weed shops to communities both on Howard Street in Evanston and in his home neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Despite having a near perfect score on their license application and qualifying as social equity applicants, the pair have yet to win a dispensary license through any of the state’s lotteries.

Now Chavis and Wine are fighting in court for the state to give more licenses to those they argue are true social equity applicants – people who, like Chavis, have experienced expungeable cannabis arrests themselves while growing up in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. 

Though Chavis said the state cleared his past cannabis offenses before he joined the military, he said he wants more people like him to be involved in the legal marijuana trade.

Chavis and Wine first met while taking the same class on dispensary operations a few years ago, and they quickly bonded over a shared love of hip-hop music and fashion, particularly sneakers. Wine grew up in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, and his brother, Ezra, has his own line of polo shirts and other men’s clothing. His wife was born and raised in Evanston, and their kids now attend Evanston public schools.

When Illinois lawmakers voted to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis in 2019, the only dispensaries that could immediately enter the market when the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020 were locations already selling legal medical marijuana.

For residents seeking a license to join the industry, the state scored each application on a scale of 250 total points based on categories like business plan, community engagement and social equity eligibility. So many applications poured in, though, that Illinois decided to only include applicants with perfect scores in its first lottery for license winners. 

Chavis and Wine, despite working with consultants and putting their own money into the application process, lost a single point for a floor plan the state deemed inadequate. They missed out on the first lottery with a score of 249 points. 

Meanwhile, huge multistate operators like Cresco Labs, Verano Labs and Green Thumb Industries began to dominate the Illinois cannabis market thanks to their access to vast amounts of money and capital. Additionally, companies can still qualify as social equity applicants if more than half their employees have an expungeable cannabis arrest, live in areas disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization or have an immediate relative with an expungeable marijuana arrest. 

Wine and Chavis said this current system supports jobs in the industry for the people historically most harmed by the war on marijuana, but it fails to make enough room for social equity business owners.

In an effort to correct early problems with license lotteries, the state held subsequent lotteries for all applicants who received a score of 85% or higher. Illinois also rescored applications using an updated rubric, and that time, Chavis and Wine did get a perfect score of 252 out of 252 possible points. Still, despite a flawless application, they did not win a license in any of the follow-up lotteries.

They filed a lawsuit against the state in October to demand a license and a chance to work in the cannabis industry, and after months of delays and confusion, they are scheduled to appear before a judge on May 20. 

Jonah Wine. Credit: Photo provided

“Once the judges allow for what’s known as discovery – that means that they then go to the state and say, ‘Show us your scoring process. Show us the winning applications. We want to compare them to the other people that didn’t win’ – the state’s not going to allow that, and that’s when they’re going to settle with everyone,” Wine said. “We just don’t know when it’s going to go down like that, but it will.” 

Both of them added that, while they believe the state and Gov. J.B. Pritzker had the right intentions with the social equity license program and the legalization process, the system as it exists today still allows corporations to exploit the law and flood the industry with their money and products. For example, Chavis said he did not originally realize that the first lottery the state held allowed for unlimited applications, essentially leaving room for the richest companies to stuff the ballot box in their favor. 

“There are still big-dollar avenues into Illinois that allow the smaller entrepreneurs like myself to be overlooked,” Chavis said. “There should be no reason why I have to look forward to another corrective lottery or whatever happens with these next applications, when I was what this program, this process was supposed to address.”

Pritzker’s office did not respond to a request from the RoundTable for comment on the current license application process and how it could possibly be improved. Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss, though, told the RoundTable that Chavis’ experience shows “that there’s work left to be done on the state level” to make the cannabis industry more equitable.

For now, Chavis and Wine are still hopeful that they can obtain a license through their court battle, and they want to bring a new vision for a boutique dispensary to underserved communities in both Evanston and Chicago. Right now, just a few dispensaries currently operate in the neighborhoods of Chicago and Cook County most impacted by the war on drugs. 

Wine said that their plan is to operate as co-owners, with each decision being a 50/50 discussion between them. Chavis will hold the title of chief executive officer, while Wine, who has worked in marketing and media for more than two decades, will serve as the chief operating officer.

Both of them also added that they want to partner with other businesses on Howard Street to improve sales and foot traffic across the entire community. Wine said he does not foresee any issues with neighboring businesses having an anti-cannabis stance or not wanting to operate near a dispensary.

Given their shared love of hip-hop and fashion, one of their goals is to create an urban weed brand that appeals to a younger audience. Right now, the latest industry research has shown that older consumers tend to buy marijuana legally from dispensaries, while many young people in their 20s have stuck to the black market because of factors like high taxes and high prices in legal cannabis stores. 

Howard Street and Chicago Avenue in South Evanston have the space for a new dispensary. Credit: City of Evanston

“We want a very independent, unique boutique dispensary that is an experience,” Wine said. “There’s no experience now. It’s like going into Walgreens – I’m there for one minute and I’m gone. Wouldn’t it be so amazing if we had a whole retail outlet connected to that, where I got to sell all sorts of things?”

If Chavis gets the opportunity to operate a legal dispensary in his home neighborhood in Chicago, he said he would finally feel like an industry and a product that took so much from him could give him a new opportunity. 

“What would it feel like to be able to open a dispensary in my neighborhood? The one word that could describe that feeling is ‘vindicated,’ justified finally,” Chavis said. “Justified for all of the people who got locked up on the same corners, all the people that died on those same corners.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. ** Correction**
    We received a perfect score of 252. Our original score was 249/250. The state rescored all applications and we received a perfect score of 252. Ty.
    Jonah Wine and Jermell Chavis.