- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - Competition among medical marijuana businesses in Illinois will be intense after more than 350 groups applied to legally grow or sell the state’s first legal and taxed cannabis, program officials announced Wednesday.

A preliminary count showed 158 applications for cultivation centers and 211 applications for dispensaries beat the Monday afternoon deadline. That means that nonrefundable fees collected by the state from the applicants topped $5 million.

“There’s a ton of excitement and enthusiasm from the industry,” said one applicant, Ben Kovler, founding partner and CEO of Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries. “This shows there is trust in the system the state has set up.”

Green Thumb submitted applications for cultivation centers in Normal, Rock Island, Oglesby and Dixon and dispensaries in Mundelein, Chicago and Chicago Heights, Kovler said. Applications were so extensive that they filled many boxes and required the company to rent a truck, he said.

Bob Morgan, coordinator of the state’s medical cannabis program, said the volume of applications “will allow us to pick the most qualified applicants.”

Applicants weren’t deterred by stringent qualifications, fees and cash requirements, Morgan added. For cultivation centers, there was a non-refundable application fee of $25,000 and a first-year registration fee of $200,000.

The locations of the proposed centers and dispensaries are still unclear. They will be announced next week, Morgan said.

Illinois expects to grant up to 21 permits for cultivation centers and up to 60 permits for dispensaries before the end of the year. The first legal marijuana would be available to registered patients in the spring of 2015.

“Obviously there is an economic interest to get into this marketplace,” said Dan Linn, executive director of Illinois NORML, a group advocating changes in marijuana laws. Linn said the state should consider increasing the number of licenses available in the medical marijuana program and, eventually, in legalizing recreational marijuana for adults.

Commercial growers will pay a 7 percent privilege tax on their marijuana sales in Illinois.

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Online: Medical Cannabis Pilot Program website: http://mcpp.illinois.gov

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AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson

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