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CHICAGO — On New Year’s Day 2020, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis.
Yet, unlike a perfectly furled joint, the rollout of legalized pot has been anything but smooth.
Lawsuits targeting the state’s pot licensing process, the explosive ubiquity of shops selling synthetic hemp-derived products, plus confusion over where actual pot dispensaries are, who gets to open them and where you can legally smoke has harshed the vibe for everyone from shop owners to stoners.
To weed through the drama, we put together a quick guide to Illinois’ history with legalized pot — including a handy map of every recreational and medical dispensary in the Chicago — plus info on new and upcoming shops.
There are 25 active adult-use recreational dispensary licenses in Chicago. Shops that sell medical marijuana are in purple.
The History Of Legal Weed In Illinois
Before recreational weed, Illinois legalized medical marijuana and downgraded possession of small amounts of Mary Jane to a fine rather than a misdemeanor.
Legal pot was first proposed in 2017, followed by an expansion of the state’s medical cannabis laws.
Illinois was set to blaze its own path in the recreational cannabis world from the get-go.
State lawmakers passed the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act to legalize weed on Jan. 1, 2020 — the first in the country to do so via governmental body rather than through voter referenfum.
It was also the first state in the country to add a social equity component to the process in an effort to boost participation from Black and Brown owners in an industry typically dominated by white men.
Before sales could begin, Chicago’s Aldermanic Black Caucus battled former Mayor Lori Lightfoot to delay sales until July 1 to ensure minority-owned shops could equally benefit from the wealth created in the new industry. The measure failed, and recreational weed sales began in Chicago as scheduled at nine dispensaries — predominantly owned by white men — that were already participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
Over $3 million in sales rolled in on the first day — beating the records of any other state with legalized weed — and that grew to over $40 million by the end of the month.
In the meantime, hundreds of budding cannabis entrepreneurs were grasping for one of 75 licenses from the state’s licensing body, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which were to be doled out May 1, 2020.
Over 700 applicants filed more than 4,000 applications.
Licenses were supposed to be prioritized toward Social Equity applicants. That program requires at least 51 percent of an ownership group to live in an area most impacted by the war on drugs, to have been arrested or had a family member arrested for a cannabis-related offense, or have more than 10 full-time employees, at least 51 percent of whom would otherwise qualify for social equity status.
In April 2020, Gov. JB Pritzker signed an executive order delaying the licenses due to the pandemic and glitches in the processing system.
Those delays caused a domino effect of other issues. In September 2020, the state announced only 21 applicants had received a perfect application score for one of the coveted 75 licenses. Included among those winners were groups with powerful clout, such as a big-time restauranteur and a former police superintendent.
Following criticism by community groups, lawmakers and losing applicants who alleged the scoring system was flawed, lawsuits ensued, including a federal suit targeting the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
Applicants who didn’t win one of the 21 spots were given deficiency notices that told them where they lost points in the process and 10 extra days to revise their applications.
In March 2021, Rep. LaShawn Ford introduced legislation to add two license lotteries and create a narrower definition of the criteria for who would qualify as a social equity applicant, among other measures. The bill passed and created an opportunity for another additional 115 licenses for social equity applicants, bringing the total to 190 licenses in Illinois.
In January 2023, the state announced it was open for another round of applications. Still, decisions over zoning in the city and state laws regarding craft growers have kept the rollout — particularly the social equity component — a work in progress.
There are 163 active adult-use recreational dispensary licenses in the state as of October.
Five state licenses for Chicago shops have been issued so far in 2023, two in November 2022, two in 2021 and five in 2020. The remaining recreational licenses were granted in 2019.
New And Upcoming Dispensaries
The delays at the state level adds another complication for social equity cannabis entrepreneurs who wish to open a dispensary in Chicago.
Business owners typically must get zoning approval for a proposed location through City Council, then a special-use permit to operate a dispensary through the separate Zoning Board of Appeals. Applicants may get city approval long before the state actually issues a license.
Nine special-use permits have been approved for Chicago dispensaries this year. Only one, the Black- and family-owned Grasshopper Club at 58 E. Roosevelt Road, has received a state license and successfully opened for business.
Other dispensaries that have cleared the city process:
- JG IL, LLC, 3455-59 S. Ashland Ave.
- VILL-OPS, Inc., 1850 W. Webster Ave., which includes a drive-thru facility.
- KAP-JG, LLC, 3340 N. Halsted St.
- Blounts & Moore, LLC, 527 S. Wells St.
- Green & Randle, LLC/Nature’s Grace & Wellness, LLC, 3419-25 W. Belmont Ave.
- Marigrow, Inc., 2573-81 N. Lincoln Ave.
- Co-applicants PTS Corp. and Bio-Pharm, LLC, 605 N. Clark St., in the former Rainforest Cafe, though neighbors are challenging the company’s social equity status, according to the Tribune.
- ReNu IL (dba Renu, LLC), 3215-25 N. Western Ave./2345-57 W. Melrose St., which will include 13 parking spaces.
Two additional applicants — Green & Randle, LLC/Nature’s Grace & Wellness, LLC at 2601-07 W. Cermak Road, and G.P. Green House, LLC at 620 N. Fairbanks Court — are awaiting a final decision.
One of the city’s newest pot shops is Karma Club, 1590 N. Clybourn Ave. in Lincoln Park. The business received a social equity license in August and is owned by Josh Weisbart and Khadija Laurens.
Weisbart was previously an operations manager and a general manager at GreenGate Dispensary in Rogers Park, which has since become a Zen Leaf location. He was also an agent in charge/manager at a Green Thumb Industries-owned dispensary in Mundelein and owned Ravinia Coffee Station in his hometown of Highland Park, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Laurens is a real estate agent closing multimillion-dollar deals with Compass. She was raised in north Africa and attended college in France, according to her profile on the company’s website.
Neither responded to questions related to the company’s social equity qualifications.
Also new this year is another Grasshopper Club location at 2551 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Logan Square, the city’s first Black-family-owned dispensary.
Spark’d, 1212 N. Ashland Ave. in Wicker Park, opened in June and is owned by two Black sisters, with help from the minds behind Dispensary 33. The sisters hope to expand into another location in a former dinner theater in the South Loop.
And in May, OKAY Cannabis, a venture between co-owners of the Fifty/50 group Scott Weiner and Greg Mohr and former Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), opened at 1914 W. Chicago Ave. in West Town.
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