Pot Topics: Weed on ballot in 4 states; Cannabis shortage in Canada

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Pot Topics is a weekly collection of cannabis-related news curated by the Chicago Sun-Times. Here’s the latest news for this week:

  • Four states will vote on cannabis initiatives on election day next week
  • Chicago mayoral candidate Gary Chico supports recreational pot legalization
  • Southern Illinois University to grow hemp, teach pot cultivation
  • Cresco Labs to acquire another Chicago area dispensary
  • River North based Green Thumb Industries partners on pot shop in Boston
  • Post-legalization weed drought reported in Canada
  • Award-winning film director Francis Ford Coppola starts pot company

Voters in 4 states to decide on marijuana measures

Voters cast their ballots for the Illinois primary elections March 20 at the Galewood Community United Church.| Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Legal pot is poised to spread further across the country this Election Day, with millions of voters casting ballots that could roll back marijuana prohibition in two states and expand access to medical cannabis in two others.

In North Dakota, voters may approve what would be the nation’s most permissive recreational marijuana laws, allowing adults to grow, consume and possess as much pot as they want, without government oversight. And in Utah, the state’s conservative residents are virtually guaranteed to see medical cannabis laws approved thanks to a deal struck between legalization advocates and religious leaders staunchly opposed to even alcohol and caffeine.

Meanwhile, Michiganders are widely expected to approve a system to legalize, tax and regulate recreational pot, and Missourians are considering three competing measures permitting medical use.

The ballot measures come at a time when the majority of U.S. states have already embraced some form of legal pot. Nine states permit recreational marijuana use, along with the District of Columbia. 29 states plus D.C. permit medical marijuana use by large numbers of people. Alabama and Mississippi have also allowed its use, but by only a small number of extremely sick people.

Marijuana remains entirely illegal at the federal level, although 66 percent of Americans support legal recreational cannabis, according to an October poll by Gallup.

“Clearly the national momentum is on our side and we see that in national polls, but national polls don’t dictate state-level results,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy-director of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. “We still have a fight on our hands in every single state where we’re trying to legalize.”

Click here to read more about cannabis-related election issues across the country.

Gery Chico backs marijuana legalization

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

This week, mayoral candidate Gary Chico proposed using revenue from recreational marijuana sales and a Chicago casino to pay for a $1 billion spike in pension payments.

Chico, who was former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of staff, said full-on legalization was “inevitable” during an appearance Monday at the City Club of Chicago, according to the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman.

“An overwhelming number of Chicagoans support the legalization of marijuana — and I do, too,” Chico said.

“A pall comes over the room,” he added jokingly.

Chico claimed legal pot sales could bring the state between $350 million to $700 million in annual revenue, echoing estimates pro-pot gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker has campaigned on.

“The next mayor has got to sit at that table and fight for Chicago’s share of the pie . . . We’re gonna be the place where the largest number of dispensaries are located, and the stores that will sell this merchandise — not only to people in Chicago, but to people in the Midwest,” Chico said.

“We can’t leave a dime on the table. Not a dime. And if that means we need a home-rule tax on top of what the state’s thinking about, that’s what we need to be in here fighting for,” he added

In addition, Chico committed to re-examining the cases of incarcerated pot offenders to grant clemency and expunge convictions.

“It makes no sense to have people burdened with criminal records for something we’ve now made legal,” he said.

Chico also estimated a Chicago casino could bring the city “up to $300 million a year depending on the ownership and tax structure” the plan includes.

SIU to grow and research hemp, offer medical pot cultivation program

SIU has launched a new hemp research program. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner, )

SIU has launched a new hemp research program. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner, )

Southern Illinois University is planning a pair of new programs to help provide research to the state’s emerging cannabis industry and offer training to students interested in pot-related careers.

While researchers at SIU’s colleges of science and agricultural sciences have been planning the programs for years, the DEA only recently allowed the school to start work on a five-acre hemp field, according to a statement from a university spokesman.

“We want to create a program to support this emerging industry,” said Karen Midden, interim dean of agricultural sciences. “We’re getting this request and input from stakeholders, who are reaching out to us, telling us they need the science. But we’re also getting it from students – current and potential students – that they would like to have programs to prepare them for work in these areas.”

Given that Gov. Bruce Rauner only recently legalized industrial hemp, researchers want to determine whether it’s feasible to grow the crop in Illinois. As part of the program, they will study how hemp fits in with Southern Illinois’ existing crops, like corn and soy beans, according to the statement.

School officials also hope to add a program next year that would certify students to produce medical cannabis, the statement said. Aldwin Anterola, associate professor in plant biology, wants to ultimately team with state-licensed pot growers to research strains, their components and their biological effects.

The program remains in the approval process, according to the statement.

“We really need science behind this,” Anterola said. “Medical marijuana is in its infancy, and with our expertise at SIU, we could help a lot in terms of quality control and standardization.”

Cresco Labs to acquire Elmwood Park dispensary

Nine states have legalized marijuana for so-called recreational use since 2012, including eight at the ballot box. Thirty-one states have authorized the drug for medical purposes. Four states have marijuana ballot questions this fall.

A clerk reaches for a container of marijuana buds for a customer at a dispensary in Detroit. | AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

River North-based Cresco Labs agreed this week to acquire a medical marijuana dispensary in west suburban Elmwood Park, expanding the company’s footprint in Illinois.

Cresco, Illinois’ largest cannabis cultivator, signed a definitive agreement to take over the FloraMedex dispensary at 7955 W. Grand Ave. in Elmwood Park, according to a press release issued Tuesday. The burgeoning cannabis company currently co-owns a pair of dispensaries in Buffalo Grove and Champaign and operates three cultivation centers throughout the state.

“This transaction will enhance our retail presence in Illinois, which is one of the strongest and most quickly evolving cannabis markets in the United States,” Cresco CEO and co-founder Charlie Bachtell said in the statement. “Growth in the state has been driven by an increasing number of registered patients and the recently passed Illinois Alternatives to Opioids Act which vastly expands the population of patients that can access medical cannabis in place of pharmaceutical opioid medications.”

Cresco is expected to pay an undisclosed amount of cash for the deal, which should close by the end of the year.

Cresco also announced the acquisition of Arizona Facilities Supply, which offers management and advisory services to Encanto Green Cross Dispensary, a nonprofit licensed to cultivate, process and dispense medical pot in Arizona. The deal will add two cultivation centers, a processing facility and a dispensary to Cresco’s existing Arizona operations. The company has also expanded to California, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The acquisitions come less than a month after Cresco raised $100 million in Series D funding, marking the second-largest private funding round for an American cannabis company. Cresco then announced plans earlier this month to go public in Canada through a reverse takeover of Randsburg Gold Corp. That deal is also expected to close by year’s end.

Click here to take a look inside Cresco’s Joliet cultivation center.

GTI, Compassionate Organics partner on Boston dispensary

A customer holds a sample bud of marijuana at an Oregon dispensary. | AP Photo/Ryan Kang

Green Thumb Industries, another multi-state cannabis company based in River North, has partnered with Massachusetts-based Compassionate Organics to open a medical cannabis dispensary on Boston’s historic Newbury Street, according to a Wednesday press release.

GTI currently has 60 pot shops and eight manufacturing facilities nationwide, including a dispensary and a cultivation center in Massachusetts. The new location in Boston is among three Massachusetts dispensaries the company has in the pipeline.

“I’m thrilled to partner with GTI, a leader in the cannabis industry and a proven community partner that is committed to serving the patients of Boston with the very best products and care,” Compassionate Organics CEO and founder Geoffrey Reilinger. “We have been impressed with GTI’s presence in Massachusetts including the service and product offerings at their Amherst dispensary and cultivation facility in Holyoke – they have proven to be excellent, community-minded neighbors.”

GTI was the first major Chicago-based cannabis company to go public in Canada through a reverse takeover. The company raised $67 million after the deal went through in June.

Legalization leads to pot shortages in Canada

Canada is now the largest country with a legal national marijuana marketplace. | Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP

Canada is now the largest country with a legal national marijuana marketplace. | Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP

Widespread pot shortages have plagued Canada since the country legalized the drug for adult use on Oct. 17.

The first weeks have felt more like a soft opening with few retail outlets operating and rampant supply shortages. It’s not because Canada can’t produce enough cannabis products — licensing those producers has been slow, and the federal government is taking steps to speed up the process.

The provinces are handling the sales and most of the regulations. Reports from around the country are similarly discouraging when it comes to supply.

Quebec closed its government-run shops for three days this week because of a lack of pot and will continue to keep them shut Mondays through Wednesdays until availability is stabilized. Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries said it expects product shortages in both brick-and-mortar and online stores could last six months.

Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, won’t have any stores open until April at the earliest as the new conservative government writes regulations. Meantime, police have shut down at least 11 illegal dispensaries in the province.

Ontario residents who want to make legal purchases are flooding the online government store. At least 150,000 orders arrived in the first week, more than all other provinces combined, and the store can’t keep up.

Contributing to the delivery problem is a strike by workers at Canada Post, the nation’s postal service that handles online marijuana orders that are legal countrywide.

British Columbia, the third-largest province by population and a place that historically supplied of much of the country’s illegal weed, still has just one retail store.

The drought has pushed some Canadian tokers to return to the black market, while some never left.

Devyn Stackhouse, a 30-year-old student at Ottawa’s Algonquin College, went to the government website on Oct. 17 and placed two orders for five pre-rolled joints and a gram each of four cannabis strains. After waiting more than a week to get a delivery, Stackhouse went to an illegal dispensary.

“If (the government) were serious about access, serious about smothering the black market, then more resources would have been allocated to the OCS,” Stackhouse said, referring to the Ontario Cannabis Store website.

Francis Ford Coppola announces pot company

Francis Ford Coppola (center) with his wife Eleanor Coppola (right) and actress Diane Lane. | Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola is the latest high-profile figure to wade into the pot business.

Coppola’s latest venture, dubbed Sána Company after a Sanskrit term for weed, intends to “give life to a progressive vision for pioneering the highest-quality, sun-grown cannabis products through sustainable farming,” according to Forbes.

The auteur, who is perhaps best known for writing and directing The Godfather trilogy, already owns a popular winery in Sonoma Valley, California and several resorts around the world.

“Wine and cannabis are two ancient and bounteous gifts of Mother Nature, linked by great care, terroir and temperateness,” Coppola said in a statement. “ Expertise making one applies to the other. As with growing grapes, location matters, as The Grower’s Series reflects California agricultural expertise creating a true blend of art and science.”

USA Today and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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