Aldus. Bobby Burns launches new marijuana business

Eighteen years ago, cannabis was illegal in most of the United States, and Ald. Bobby Burns (5th grade) was a student at Evanston Township High School who occasionally smoked marijuana with his friends.

Today, recreational cannabis is legal in Illinois, and Burns is the alderman for the 5th district on the city council. He became a pioneer of a more progressive approach to recreational drug regulation – and a young entrepreneur in Illinois’ cannabis industry.

Three months after his election in April 2021, Burns’ company, Herban Garden, was awarded one of the first 40 homegrown marijuana licenses in the state. Burns hopes to build an eco-friendly greenhouse in Chicago, where his team can grow the crop and sell produce at dispensaries.

“I realized that I needed to be part of this industry so that I could help ensure, even through my participation, that marginalized groups and minority groups are represented in the industry,” Burns said.

The path has not been easy for Burns. Still, he said the experience was a lesson in the realities of business and politics — from funding a startup in an evolving industry to eliminating cannabis testing for Evanston employees.

Growing pains

At 36, Burns says he no longer uses cannabis, but he recognizes its benefits.

“I’ve always understood cannabis and appreciated its ability to heal and help people manage their stress levels,” he said.

He also works to make the new industry more inclusive and address the inequities of Illinois’ past drug policies that disproportionately affected marginalized groups. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black people were 7.5 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession of cannabis in Illinois when the plant was illegal.

Although Burns’ goals were vast, the details of building Herban Garden proved difficult.

Applicants for craft growth must present a detailed plan explaining how they will ensure the safety of their installation and develop the factory in a coherent way, as well as how the business will ultimately be profitable. Most applications are over 100 pages.

Burns enlisted Justice Cannabis Co., a Chicago-based multistate cannabis company that promotes inclusivity, for free assistance in filing the claim. The company has helped many candidate groups in the process.

Cole Eastman, an attorney on Burns’ team, said some candidates pay consultants up to six figures for help.

“Just because your grow plan says you know how to grow cannabis doesn’t mean the owners of this company know how to grow cannabis,” Eastman said.

Herban Garden also applied for the license as a social equity candidate – a program designed to reduce barriers to industry. To qualify, a majority owner of the business must be an Illinois resident who lives in an area disproportionately affected by cannabis-related arrests, has been arrested for a cannabis-related offense, or has a member of his or her family who was arrested for a cannabis-related offence. .

Illinois also gives preference to veteran-owned businesses. To qualify as a social equity candidate, Burns tapped his uncle, Reginald Burns, as the majority owner. A Vietnam veteran, his uncle is also from Englewood, Chicago, which has a black population of over 90%.

When Herban Garden got the license in July 2021, Eastman said he was speechless.

“I couldn’t work the rest of the day,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was really exciting.

Raise seed capital

After obtaining a license, Herban Garden struggled to raise funds and get the business operational.

Burns said that if the company doesn’t raise the $10 million needed to launch it, it will either sell its license or merge with a larger cannabis company, defeating its goal of creating an independently owned company. to a minority.

Evanston native Asia Lustig, a former Justice Cannabis Co. employee who met Burns when she was an intern for the city, is co-owner of Herban Garden.

“These licenses are considered a golden ticket to making money, and that’s really not true if you don’t already have money,” Lustig said.

Herban Garden was conditionally approved a year ago for the state’s Social Equity Cannabis Loan Program, which provides low-interest loans to social equity applicants. But Eastman said the company still hasn’t received the loan.

Burns applied for a property in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago for his greenhouse. It is eligible for the Chicago Recovery Grant, which aims to fund local development in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Herban Garden has yet to hear about the grant.

Craft growers in Illinois are initially allowed a maximum of 5,000 square feet for cannabis plants. Growers may eventually obtain approval from the Illinois Department of Agriculture to increase in 3,000 square foot increments, with a maximum of 14,000 square feet.

Scott Redman, founder of the Illinois Independent Craft Growers Association, said this rule makes it difficult to start a profitable business quickly.

“People say, ‘Oh, that’s just weed,'” Redman said. “But no, it’s about growing a very specific plant to very specific, high standards…the end product has to be as consistent as pharmaceuticals.”

Collect new ideas

Along with Burns, cannabis is also of particular importance to Evanston as a whole: the city’s 3% tax on recreational cannabis funds its initial repair program, the Restorative Housing Program.

However, only 16 of the 132 eligible recipients were paid within the first series of repairs payments, which give each person $25,000 to use for property purchases, mortgage payments or home repairs. Evanston currently has only one dispensary: ​​Zen Leaf on Maple Avenue.

Burns, a member of the Reparations Committee, said Evanston should use the program to encourage dispensaries to open in the city.

“We’ve tied the success of cannabis to this important social initiative, which gives us every incentive to not only get you here, but also to make sure you succeed,” he said.

Burns said it was difficult for craft growers to get started in Evanston due to the lack of empty warehouse space for grow facilities. Evanston’s cannabis tax only applies to sales at city dispensaries.

With his company, Burns hopes to prove that local politicians can balance public service with other jobs. Burns said council members’ $15,990 annual salary and lack of funds for aldermen to hire staff make it difficult for low- and middle-income candidates to justify their candidacy.

Burns also wants to “tackle the stigma” around cannabis users – something he’s been pushing as a representative of the 5th Ward.

In May, city council passed a resolution proposed by Burns that eliminated cannabinoid screening for candidates employed by the city. The revised parameters, which were passed on Monday, allow cannabinoid testing for “security-sensitive” positions and “cases of reasonable suspicion.”

Burns said his ultimate goal is to create an environmentally sustainable business that educates users about responsible cannabis use.

“Even places like Evanston still won’t allow you to show up completely — with some level of nanograms in your system,” Burns said. “We want to educate people about the power of this powerhouse and how to use it responsibly, so they can continue to do the work they want to do.”

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @saullpink

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