On a foggy November day in 1999, Ricky Flores visited his mother’s home in the Chicago neighborhood of Brighton Park. While his younger sister went into the house to deliver groceries to their mom, he stayed outside to speak to his friends who were gathered in a Chevrolet Caprice.

Another car of men drove up, and the two groups began to insult each other. Flores, then 20, didn’t realize they were armed until he turned around to leave and saw his friends ducking. The other men had begun shooting.

Ricky Flores, pictured at around 21 years old. Courtesy Ricky Flores

After the bullets subsided, Flores’s mother yelled out, “My son! They killed my son!” Flores assured his mom that he was fine, thinking he’d been shot in the torso. But when his friends pointed out that he had been shot in the neck, he reached up, felt the wound, and immediately fell to the ground.

Flores was hospitalized and went into a coma for three days. When he woke up, he learned that the bullet had ricocheted off his friend’s car, struck him in the neck, and traveled to his ribs. The bullet remains lodged in his body, a reminder of the day that almost became his last. 

But nearly 25 years later, the experience is also giving him a unique chance to enter the cannabis industry. He wants to open a dispensary on the Southwest Side of Chicago and provide jobs to other people who have been affected by gun violence. 

Applications for Illinois’ 2023 dispensary license lottery are due on March 10. (Editor’s note: After this story was published, Illinois extended the application deadline to April 21. According to the application portal, the agency was receiving a “high volume of online renewals.”) It is the first time the state is specifically soliciting applicants through a social equity program that gives gun violence survivors a leg up. 

While social equity programs like this one are designed to help people whose communities were affected by the war on drugs get started in a new and lucrative business, Illinois is the only state that explicitly gives preference to people directly affected by gun violence. Critics say such programs have not met their goal of diversifying the cannabis industry.

In 2021, 41 percent of the businesses that won the lottery were majority Black-owned, 7 percent majority white-owned, 4 percent majority Latino-owned, and 38 percent did not disclose their owners’ race. Many winners sold their licenses, or haven’t yet used them to open dispensaries. Only four dispensaries have opened from among the 192 lottery winners; three of them are franchises or have white investors. 

This year, several changes to the process were designed to change that reality. The state simplified the application form, lowered the fee from $2,500 to $250, and expanded the pool of those who qualify for special consideration in an effort to include more people who have been impacted by poverty and the war on drugs.

Ricky Flores Rita Oceguera for The Trace

“It’s giving us a chance to not just be a victim. Now we’re part of an industry that at first didn’t include us,” Flores said. “Our kids can have generational wealth so I can [have] my kids live a different life than what I lived.”

In 2019, the state legislators who legalized marijuana wrote into law that Illinois also needed to remedy the harm created by the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis-related laws on people of color. To do this, they created the social equity program to distribute dispensary licenses through a lottery; winners get support beyond their licenses, like access to low-interest loans.

The requirements for entering the lottery in 2021 were fairly narrow. For this second round, applicants must meet broadened requirements in two categories to win one of the state’s 55 new adult-use retail licenses.

The first category addresses socioeconomic status, requiring a person to have lived in an area with a high poverty rate — or to have received federal assistance for a need like housing — for at least five of the past 10 years. The second category requires applicants or their immediate family members to have been arrested or convicted for low-level cannabis-related offenses, or to have survived a firearm injury.

“When you’re living in Chicago, especially in an area like Brighton Park or Little Village, the shootings, you see them on a weekly, daily basis,” Flores said.

A 2019 study of narcotics-driven firearm violence in Philadelphia’s majority-Puerto Rican neighborhoods found that in economically abandoned areas, people sold drugs because it was the most readily accessible form of employment and a potential stepping stone for social mobility. 

Yet this underground economy also creates violence and a high risk of incarceration, said Philippe Bourgois, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who co-authored the study. He added that if you are born in such an area, early exposure to open-air drug markets — and the resulting violence — is inevitable.

Flores knows what that’s like. The first time someone shot at him, he was only 14. “It got to a point where it’s normal,” he said.

A man with short dark hair smiles broadly, wearing a red velvet suit jacket over a white shirt and a dark tie
Juan Aguirre Courtesy of Juan Aguirre

Winning the social equity lottery is just the first step to breaking into the cannabis industry. Those selected for a conditional license have one year to prove that they have secured a location. They should also prepare a business plan — and have the funds to support it. Many people have trouble acquiring startup money and drop out of the process, said Juan Aguirre, board member and program manager of the National Diversity & Inclusion Cannabis Alliance. The marijuana industry, he said, has favored people who are rich, powerful, and politically connected, mostly wealthy white men

Because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, dispensary owners can’t access federal loans. Getting money from other sources could require selling large shares of their company, Aguirre said. And once an owner starts a business, sourcing products can be difficult under current laws, which limit the amount of cannabis people can grow themselves.

“We don’t want to sell this to somebody as a get-rich-quick scheme,” Aguirre said.

So far, social equity programs have drawn criticism, and many doubt their efficacy. Lottery winners have complained about their inability to raise money because the state does not allow them to sell business equity to investors without costly inspections. They also say they have not received money from the low-interest loan program. Ultimately, these hurdles have resulted in relatively few lottery winners actually opening dispensaries with their licenses. Aguirre’s nonprofit is helping people navigate the process in the hopes of improving success rates. Through its intake form, NDICA has found 97 people who qualify as social equity applicants, 64 of whom meet the firearm injury criteria.

Flores contacted NDICA in 2021 to learn more about opening a dispensary. The organization then hired him as its director of community outreach.

Flores said the experience has shown him how important it is to spread the word about the social equity program in his own community. “They’re motivating me to help more Latinos get into the cannabis industry.”