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CHICAGO (AP) — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner awarded licenses Monday to dozens of medical marijuana businesses across the state after conducting an internal review that found flaws in the never-completed license award process under former Gov. Pat Quinn.
Letters to 18 winning cultivation centers and 52 retail shops were sent out Monday afternoon, Rauner spokesman Lance Trover told The Associated Press. In eight districts, Rauner delayed the licenses for further review, leaving those jurisdictions awaiting word on which companies will be able to join what could be a $36 million industry in 2016.
"I believe the right companies were rewarded," said Tim McGraw, CEO of ACE Revolution Cannabis, which won licenses to build marijuana-growing facilities in the Illinois cities of Delavan and Barry. "We're excited to get to work to bring safe medicine to the patients of Illinois."
Letters sent to the cultivation center winners from the Department of Agriculture inform them of a number of conditions. Businesses will need to pay a license fee, for example, and they'll be subject to ongoing oversight during the startup process.
The license awards follow many weeks of uncertainty after the Quinn administration failed to meet its own deadline of issuing the permits by the end of 2014. The Democrat announced the morning of Rauner's inauguration that he would leave the issue for the Republican to decide.
The Associated Press reported last week, based on documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request, that Quinn's office was scrambling to decide whether to issue licenses on the eve of him leaving office. The Rauner administration launched its review of the process almost immediately.
Medical patients had been pushing Quinn to issue the licenses. Rauner's action Monday means that Illinois' first legal marijuana crop could be harvested this year. It's not immediately clear how long it will be before patients will have access to the first legal cannabis.
State Rep. Lou Lang, the Skokie Democrat who sponsored the legislation that created the pilot program, praised Rauner for issuing the licenses. He said although the Republican governor inherited a program with several problems and has indicated he is not a big fan of medical cannabis, his office managed to carefully review the process and issue licenses with only three weeks of delay.
"Gov. Rauner deserves a lot of credit here," Lang said. "It's great for patients."
Rauner's general counsel, Jason Barclay, released a statement Monday listing problems in the Quinn process that had created "a risk of substantial and costly litigation" to the state.
Barclay said that the teams reviewing the applications imposed arbitrary cut-offs in scores "that were not expressly contemplated or provided by law that effectively eliminated certain applicants from consideration."
He said the state agencies involved conducted a character and fitness review of the applicants only after the blind scoring process had been completed. That character and fitness review resulted in several applicants being disqualified "without clear procedures and standards for disqualification and without offering the prospective applicants an opportunity to respond to the information that was relied upon to make the disqualification decisions."
Finally, the Rauner administration faulted Quinn for deciding "to award no more than one cultivation center license to applicants who were the high point scorers in more than one district."
Barclay said the review was shared with Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, which also reviewed the findings. Natalie Bauer, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, wouldn't elaborate.
One dispensary applicant still under review in two districts, Health Central LLC, had hired former Quinn chief of staff Jack Lavin to lobby for medical marijuana licenses.
Matthew Hortenstine, an attorney representing Health Central, said he's "confident the Rauner administration will be fair-minded about this and give an adequate and proper review." Other companies also had politically connected lobbyists, Hortenstine said.
Lang, the sponsor, said he's believed from the beginning that the process would result in litigation, and that a lawsuit was likely regardless of how Rauner handled it.
Lang said he spoke with some patients after hearing the news. "They are thrilled and ready to go," he said.
Quinn made no decisions because he "felt the process was incomplete," Quinn spokesman George Sweeney said in an email Monday. "He refused to rush the licenses out the door and instead left the licensing decisions to the next administration, as was done with many contracting decisions at other state agencies."
Material released last week by Rauner's administration "was preliminary and never approved" by Quinn, Sweeney said.
AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson
AP Writer Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.