Back when he was a state senator and a candidate for governor, Republican Kirk Dillard was staunchly against the idea of legalized medical marijuana in Illinois.
So it was something of a surprise to see Dillard’s name associated with a group vying for a potentially lucrative license to grow medical cannabis.
Dillard voted against the controversial medical marijuana bill that passed the General Assembly last year. That bill, which was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2013, legalized the growing and selling of marijuana to help people with certain medical conditions in Illinois.
“I do not support legalizing medical marijuana due to the concerns of the law enforcement community that it will be difficult to enforce,” Dillard wrote in an Associated Press survey of 2010 gubernatorial candidates. (Cops have raised concerns about increased crime, more impaired driving and not enough research on the impacts of this burgeoning industry.)
But now, Dillard is part of a legal team advising a group called Grand Prairie Farms, which is vying for two medical marijuana-growing licenses from state government. The state is regulating this new industry.
An internal document we obtained, prepared by Grand Prairie Farms, touts Dillard’s role as a member of the legal team: “Kirk Dillard’s recent experience as an Illinois Senator provides a unique benefit in his role as a consultant to this project.”
Dillard told the Better Government Association he has no financial stake in Grand Prairie Farms, nor does his legal work for the group affect his current role as chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, the government agency that regulates the CTA, Metra and Pace. Dillard started as RTA chairman in August, around the same time he left the General Assembly. The chairman role carries a $25,000-a-year taxpayer-backed salary and is part-time; nothing prevents such outside income.
Dillard’s role with Grand Prairie Farms, he said, was to help his legal partner at the law firm Locke Lord LLP, John Costello, who is the group’s main attorney.
“I’m just sort of there very, very tangentially in order to point them in the right direction,” Dillard told us. “I consulted on the application, but I think my role as part of this is done. I’m not sure, if they get a license, what my role, if anything, will be.”
Dillard said he helped the group answer questions about the ins and outs of state government. The medical marijuana law is complex, and involves the state’s agriculture and public health departments, and the financial and professional regulation department.
It’s clear why the group wanted Dillard’s expertise – navigating that bureaucracy – but he said he had to think hard before helping, especially because of his previous stance as a medical marijuana opponent. He said he felt comfortable with this group’s plans for growing pot and security. But, he said doing legal work (which his firm is charging for) does not mean he’s changed his personal position.
“If I represented somebody on a speeding ticket, that doesn’t mean I think they should have sped,” he said.
Decisions Expected Soon
The state is currently reviewing applications for up to 60 dispensary licenses, which will involve storefronts where patients with medical approval will be able to buy cannabis, and up to 21 cultivation licenses, covering high-tech, high-security indoor growing facilities.
The Grand Prairie Farms group is interested in getting a cultivation licenses for sites in Will and Kankakee counties, according to documents and interviews.
Teams of state employees will score the applications and ultimately choose the winners, which are expected to be announced by the end of the year. That’s before the man who beat Dillard in the March GOP primary and just beat Quinn in the November general election, Governor-elect Bruce Rauner, takes over.
Before state employees see the applications, they’re supposed to be wiped clean of names. The intent is to make the process merit-based, and free from clout and shenanigans.
Rauner has blasted the process as “secret,” saying decisions on licenses shouldn’t be made behind closed doors.
Dillard may be the highest-profile person linked to one of the applicants to date, but with many millions of dollars at stake, we won’t be surprised to hear more familiar names very soon.
Either way, there’s another, very practical reason why law firms such as Locke Lord and lawyers such as Dillard are involved — the laws are extremely complex, Costello said.
After Tuesday’s elections, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in some form. Alaska and Oregon joined Colorado and Washington as the only states where recreational use is legal. The rest, including Illinois, have legalized marijuana for medicinal use only.
“You need professionals. You’re dealing with a product that’s still illegal on the federal side,” Costello said, making the distinction between the U.S. government and state governments such as Illinois. “Amateurs need not apply.”
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick McCraney. He can be reached at (815) 483-1612 or firstname.lastname@example.org.