Cannabis

Everything You Need to Know About Legal Weed in Chicago

weed
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Now that Illinois has become the 11th state to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, the Land of Lincoln is suddenly looking a whole lot greener. With 37 dispensaries currently selling recreational marijuana (including 10 in Chicago and 18 in the surrounding suburbs) as of the end of January, you’ve got plenty of options if you feel like now’s the time to stop having awkward conversations with your pot dealer and pay a visit to a professional budtender instead.
 
More than $3 million in sales on the first day of legalization and a whopping $19.7 million sold in the first 12 days meant Illinois had one of the largest openings of any state and made clear that there's a large appetite for marijuana here. Yet while the product shortages and long lines prevalent during the opening weeks have decreased quite a bit, customers should still be prepared to wait in line for the next several months as demand is expected to continue to outstrip supply while local cannabis operators ramp up production as part of the state’s managed growth rollout.
 
To better understand the current status of legal marijuana in Illinois, we spoke to several experts in the field: Cannabis Business Association of Illinois Executive Director Pam Althoff; Illinois State Senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago), who was instrumental in passing the legislation that legalized recreational marijuana; Chris Slaby, Public Information Officer at the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, and Jason Erkes, spokesman for Chicago-based Cresco Labs, which operates several dispensaries and cultivation facilities across Illinois as the state’s largest cannabis operator.

What can I buy?

Illinois cannabis vendors offer the full suite of products from traditional bud (aka “flower”) and pre-rolled joints to vapes, edibles, concentrates, oils, topicals, capsules, tinctures, oral sprays, and yes, even suppositories. When you visit a dispensary in Illinois, everything is prepackaged and you’re not allowed to touch any of the products until after the point of purchase. “Illinois is a regulation-focused market,” said Erkes, “which can give people peace of mind for the quality of the product they’re buying.”
 
Illinois residents over 21 wishing to partake in the recreational program can purchase and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis flower, 5 grams of cannabis concentrate, and no more than 500 milligrams of THC contained in a cannabis-infused product per visit. (For those of you who don’t have your scales handy, 30 grams is roughly equivalent to an ounce of weed.) Non-Illinois residents over 21 may possess up to 15 grams of cannabis flower, 2.5 grams of cannabis concentrate, and no more than 250 milligrams of THC contained in a cannabis-infused product.

Where can I buy it?

To begin the program, all of Illinois’ existing 55 medicinal dispensaries were allowed the option to also sell to recreational consumers, as well as the option to open an additional store. As of January 2020, there were 37 dispensaries selling recreational marijuana in Illinois. (Forty-eight have been licensed, but some are not up and running yet, while others are located in communities that have opted out of allowing recreational cannabis.)
 
There are currently 10 dispensaries in Chicago and 18 in the surrounding suburbs selling recreational marijuana (view the full list here). The Chicago locations are listed below:
 
Sunnyside, 3812 N. Clark Street
Dispensary 33, 5001 N. Clark Street
MOCA Modern Cannabis, 2847 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Maribis of Chicago, 4570 S. Archer Avenue
Columbia Care, 4758 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Mission Illinois, 8554 S. Commercial Avenue
The Herbal Care Center, 1301 S. Western Avenue
Midway Dispensary, 5648 S. Archer Avenue
Consume: Chicago, 6428 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Nu Med Chicago, 1308 W. North Avenue

How many new dispensaries will be opened in 2020? 

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation will be issuing up to 75 new licenses by May 1, with 47 located in the Chicago area. Chicago is split into seven cannabis districts, with an initial cap of seven dispensaries per district (which may be increased to 14 per district by May 1). While the sale of cannabis will be prohibited in the “Downtown Exclusion Zone” in the Loop near the Downtown lakefront, several local dispensaries including Cresco Labs are already planning to open locations in the lucrative downtown market, some of which could be opened as early as spring.
 
Illinois’ capacity to grow cannabis via its 21 existing cultivation facilities (the same number that were in operation as part of the state’s medicinal program that began in 2014) is also being expanded, with the Illinois Department of Agriculture planning to award up to 40 licenses for smaller “craft” growers by July 1, with up to 60 additional grow facilities to be awarded by December 21. These new grow facilities will help alleviate some of the current product shortages, with most experts saying it will take six months to a year for the lines to get down to normal as more flower is produced and supply catches up with demand. “I believe in the next six months, you’ll see it come to a more balanced level between supply and demand,” said Althoff.

What else do I need to know? 

You can't grow your own weed unless you're a registered qualifying patient in the state’s medicinal cannabis program. Those registered in the program wishing to home grow must live in a household that owns the residence or have permission from the owner, and are limited to growing no more than five plants that are five inches or taller. You can't transport any marijuana across any state lines ever, as is the case in all other states where marijuana is legal. Obviously, no smoking in public or while driving. Driving under the influence of marijuana remains illegal.
 
The legislation does allow local municipalities to create on-site consumption lounges, provided the facilities are attached to a current licensed dispensary or located in a site currently designed for such use such as a cigar lounge. At least one smoke lounge has already been approved in downstate Illinois (Illinois Supply & Provisions in Springfield) but none currently exist in Chicago, although the city is exploring the possibility of allowing consumption lounges in the near future.

How much money is involved?

With strong demand, a large population base, and some of the highest cannabis taxes in the country, which could be as high as 41.25% on recreational purchases, Illinois’ program could grow into one of the most lucrative in the country. The Illinois Department of Revenue is projecting “significant revenue growth as the cannabis market matures” according to a bill summary document, which projects revenue of $57 million in taxes and licensing fees in fiscal year 2020. That number is projected to jump to $140.5 million in fiscal year 2021 and $253.5 million in fiscal year 2022.
 
So where does all this money go? “Twenty-five percent of cannabis sales tax revenues will support the Restore, Reinvest and Renew (R3) program, which aims to address the impact of economic disinvestment, violence and the historical overuse of the criminal justice system,” said Slaby. Additionally, 35 percent will be transferred to the state’s general fund, 20 percent will go towards addressing substance abuse, prevention, and mental health concerns, while 10 percent will help pay the state’s backlog of unpaid bills.
 
Erkes said Illinois had the second biggest opening in its first month of any state to legalize marijuana besides California, with some customers waiting in line six to seven hours to make their first legal purchase in the initial few days following legalization. By the end of January, wait times had already decreased significantly, but lines are still expected for the next few months as supply slowly catches up with demand. “We’re all under construction now and expanding facilities, growing new plants,” said Erkes, “and I think that will bring a lot of new product to the market by spring.” 

What makes Illinois’ program different from other states?

Illinois is the first state to legalize marijuana by an act of the state legislature, and the program is noted for its focus on social equity as its main differentiating factor. This will allow those who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and those from lower-income communities to gain entry to the legal market, as well as having low-level criminal marijuana possession convictions and arrests expunged. Governor Pritzker has already expunged 11,000 convictions, and Steans said up to 770,000 criminal records could be expunged across the state in the coming years.
 
Social equity applications will also be prioritized in the next round of dispensary licensing, with the “craft grow” legislation aimed at allowing smaller-scale operations entry into the market. “The goal is creating more access so that the industry better reflects the diversity of the state of Illinois,” said Steans. “We’re hopefully setting the model for diversifying the industry.”
 
“Illinois had a far more successful launch of cannabis than many of the other states that have legalized, but this is about more than money, it’s about starting a new industry in a way that includes communities left behind for far too long. Members of those communities will have the opportunity to apply for licenses to open a dispensary, become a craft grower or infuser, or transport product under the new law. Illinois is the only state in the country to take an equity-centric approach to the legalization of cannabis and I thank all those who worked hard to make the launch a success,” said Toi Hutchinson, Senior Advisor to Governor Pritzker for Cannabis Control, in a statement.

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Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine, and more. Follow @thejaygentile