Marijuana turned out to be one of the biggest winners on election day in the U.S. last week. Michigan residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana. Missouri and Utah voters passed ballot initiatives that legalized medical marijuana. Democrats regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, which should increase the prospects for federal marijuana reform.

However, there's another major election victory for marijuana that few are talking about. Billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker won the Illinois gubernatorial race. And it could lead to more good news for the U.S. cannabis industry.

Now entering Illinois sign with a marijuana leaf drawn on it

Image source: Getty Images.

Land of Lincoln, land of weed?

Pritzker handily defeated Illinois' incumbent Republican governor Bruce Rauner. And he did so on a definitively pro-marijuana platform. 

A month before the election, Pritzker stated that, if elected, he planned to "put in place a framework to license businesses to sell marijuana to consumers for recreational use." With his victory now in hand, he intends to get the ball rolling on the legalization of recreational marijuana soon after he's sworn in as the next governor of Illinois in early 2019. 

Illinois already allows the legal sale and use of medical marijuana. However, the state imposed strict regulations that made it challenging for businesses to get up and running successfully. Legislation signed by Rauner earlier this year will allow patients who are prescribed opioids to use medical marijuana, a move that will expand the state's medical cannabis market.

Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics estimate that medical marijuana sales in Illinois will total nearly $150 million this year. By 2022, that figure is projected to increase to $400 million. However, these estimates don't factor in the possibility that Illinois could legalize recreational marijuana. 

Illinois' population is nearly one-third the size of California, which is projected to generate $7.7 billion in legal marijuana sales by 2022. It's possible that Illinois could eventually claim a legal marijuana market of around $2.5 billion, or more, if Pritzker delivers on his pledge to legalize recreational marijuana.

Potential winners

Another multibillion-dollar cannabis market would certainly make some businesses big winners. Several marijuana stocks appear to be top candidates for that group.

Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries (GTBIF 3.48%) could be in great shape to profit from the opening of a legal recreational marijuana market in Illinois. Green Thumb Industries (GTI) currently focuses only on marijuana markets in eight states, including Illinois. The company's operations span the supply chain from cultivation, to manufacturing, to wholesale and retail. GTI was one of three marijuana stocks that billionaire investor Leon Cooperman disclosed last month that he had personally bought. 

MedMen Enterprises (MMNFF) is another potential winner if Illinois legalizes recreational marijuana. The company ranks as the largest U.S. cannabis retailer. MedMen announced in October that it plans to acquire PharmaCann, one of the largest medical cannabis producers and dispensary operators in the U.S., and it's headquartered in Oak Park, Illinois. The PharmaCann deal will give MedMen a presence in 12 states, including Illinois.

MariMed (MRMD 2.86%) should also have a nice opportunity in Illinois with the potential legalization of recreational marijuana. The company focuses on helping marijuana growers by designing and developing production facilities, and by providing professional management services.

Although MariMed isn't based in Illinois, the company built and leases a cannabis production facility in the state. It also acquired Betty's Eddies last year. Betty's Eddies is the most popular brand of cannabis edibles in Illinois.

A few hurdles

There are still several hurdles to jump before the election of J.B. Pritzker truly turns into a victory for marijuana stocks. Pritzker must first be sworn in. He then must successfully advance legislation to legalize recreational marijuana. 

There are two things working in his favor. First, Illinois doesn't require a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana. All it takes is for the bill to pass the state's Senate and House of Representatives. Also, Democrats enjoy supermajorities in both legislative chambers. That will make it much easier for Pritzker to advance his agenda.

Assuming such legislation is passed in 2019, it will still probably take between 12 and 18 months before recreational marijuana is available legally in Illinois. Still, the odds of that happening are pretty good now. The Illinois gubernatorial results could end up handing the marijuana industry one of its biggest wins of the 2018 U.S. elections.