Illinois Breweries Are Fighting Springfield for Their Right to Continue Making THC Drinks

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The Illinois beer industry is rallying against legislation in Springfield that, if passed, could make making low-dose THC beverages illegal. The brewers claim the dispensary lobby is ramrodding a bill through the state Senate and House that would mandate breweries and distilleries that produce drinks like THC seltzers to operate under the same (and more costly) licensing requirements as dispensaries.

Introduced in April, the Hemp Consumer Products Act (Senate Bill 3926) presents far-reaching regulations that impact bars and taprooms, which began serving hemp-derived products in February. These products are derived from hemp rather than cannabis. Licenses would come with a $5,000 application fee and a July 1, 2026 deadline to apply.

An amendment to that bill, filed on Tuesday, May 9, which brewers say goes beyond the scope of public safety, and adds stricter guidelines for hemp-derived products. In a statement, the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild describes the legislation “as short-sighted and the monopolization of THC under the guise of legislation” and claims that the measures would “immediately prohibit thousands of Illinois businesses manufacturing hemp-based products, including craft breweries.”

The regulations would administer a big blow to the state’s breweries, which are searching for ways to boost sales since the industry’s peak at the start of the pandemic.

“As craft beer has leveled out, a bunch of brewers in Illinois have seen sales of craft beer replaced by the sales of hemp-derived products,” says Ed Marszewski, co-owner of McKinley Park-based Marz Community Brewing. Marz sells the most THC drinks in Illinois. These are non-alcoholic; the state forbids selling drinks mixed with both THC and alcohol.

About 30 Illinois breweries — roughly 10 percent of the industry — make THC-derived drinks. Marszewski accuses lobbyists of stealthily “slipping in some pork.” There’s a feeling the bills were designed to get through the Senate with minimum discussion, part of larger omnibus legislation. The fear is the bills would be bundled with other legislation and arrive on the House floor for a concurrence vote where representatives could only vote “yes” or “no” without scrutiny.

A short can of Choom Lite.
Choom Lite is a non-alcholic sparking drink with THC.
Central Park Bar

“The high-level goal, which is certainly applaudable — and I support 1,000 percent — is public safety,” says Glenn McElfresh, a cannabis lobbyist, advocate, and owner of Perfectly Dosed, a Chicago company that makes emulsions so breweries can manufacture THC drinks. (Hopewell Brewing in Logan Square is one of its clients.) “The secondary part of this, the part that hurts is it’s protecting the economic interest of existing cannabis business owners.”

Brewers, like Marszewski, point to bills introduced in February (Senate Bill 2790 and its House companion, House Bill 5306) as evidence they aren’t opposed to regulation.

McElfresh will testify Wednesday afternoon in front of state senators in Springfield to share his insights. Reps from the Hemp Beverage Alliance and Illinois Craft Brewers Guild will assemble on Thursday morning at Hopewell Brewing for a news conference to discuss the latest news.

The beverage industry argues that cannabis companies want to be the ones selling them to customers and controlling the market. There’s also disagreement about how the bills came into existence. Brewers believe that one organization, the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, is behind the legislation. CBAI is a lobbyist group representing dispensaries and labs around the state.

“We share Leader Lightford’s goals to protect children, empower consumers, and strengthen our state’s legal cannabis industry,” CBAI executive director Tiffany Chappell Ingram says in a statement to Eater. “We appreciate her leadership on this important issue and look forward to continued conversations about the best way to rein in the proliferation of synthetic THC intoxicants that are currently sickening children, confusing customers, and undermining our state’s carefully crafted cannabis market.”

US-NEWS-ILL-HEMP-BUSINESSES-TB
Tiffany Chappell Ingram, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois speaks in April in Springfield.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The bills’ sponsor, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) tells Crain’s that legislators are in the process of negotiating with the hemp and cannabis industry to design a bill that “all sides can agree upon while ensuring our common goal to have a fair, just and safe industry remains.”

While McElfresh commends Lightford’s commitment to public safety, he claims that the CBAI and other cannabis industry lobbyists have failed to engage with brewers: “How many times have you included the Craft Brewers Guild or the beer industry in discussions?” he says. “The answer has been zero’”

Dispensary owners undergo a detailed background check and are subject to strict security requirements. There’s resentment within the cannabis industry that breweries aren’t held to equal standards and don’t pay the same in taxes.

Breweries feel the amendment would effectively crush any growth in their sector while allowing massive cannabis companies to thrive

“So far we are setting these huge companies coming into the space that have seemingly unlimited funds,” says Samantha Lee of Hopewell Brewing, comparing cannabis with the early, scrappier days of the craft beer industry. “It’s a very different approach and feel.”

Lee says Hopewell began serving THC drinks in February after collaborating with Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Minnesota. Minnesota has already been a battleground for low-dose THC drinks, as the state has seen the market soar. Marszewski notes that more than 100 breweries in Minnesota manufacture THC-infused drinks. So-called “Big Cannabis” doesn’t want to see the same success unfold in Illinois, Marszewski and Lee say.

The Illinois Brewers Guild notes that Minnesota generated $1.5 million in tax revenue from $15.4 million in sales from hemp-derived drinks two months after that state began regulating the industry in June 2022. The guild claims the state “could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue if we follow Minnesota’s model.” Minnesota’s law does have loopholes.

The state’s beer distributors — often seen as representing the big breweries that compete with the smaller craft breweries — seem united with their smaller siblings. McElfresh says that’s uncommon.

“This is like getting dogs and cats to agree that loud noises are scary,” he says.

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