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Thousands flock to weed shops as Illinois’ pot prohibition comes to an end

Despite long lines, limited product options and hefty taxes, thousands of people came out to celebrate the end of Illinois’ long prohibition on pot.

Hundreds of customers stand in line at Rise Joliet, a cannabis dispensary in southwest suburban Joliet, as the sun rises on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Illinois: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020.
Hundreds of customers stand in line at Rise Joliet, a cannabis dispensary in southwest suburban Joliet, as the sun rises Wednesday on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Illinois.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Around 6 a.m. Wednesday, Renzo Mejia walked into Chicago’s Dispensary 33 and, after perusing a menu, bought an eighth of an ounce of Motorbreath OG for $80.

With that, the 31-year-old West Loop resident made the first legal purchase of recreational marijuana in Illinois history.

As soon as the order processed, a cheer permeated the small showroom floor and employees and customers embraced.

“To be able to have [recreational marijuana] here is just mind-boggling,” said Mejia. “ ... To be able to now make the first purchase in Chicago, it’s just surreal.”

To be the first, Mejia — a medical marijuana patient who has worked for two Illinois pot companies — rang in the New Year in line and braved freezing temperatures overnight.

He was just one of thousands of people who came out to celebrate the end of the state’s long prohibition on pot despite long lines, limited product options and hefty taxes. From Lake View to Joliet, Romeoville to South Shore, similar scenes played out at dispensaries across the state as throngs flocked to get their first taste of legal weed.

Renzo Mejia, of the West Loop, shows off his purchase of an eighth of an ounce of Motorbreath OG, the first legal sale of recreational weed in Illinois history.
Renzo Mejia, of the West Loop, shows off his purchase of an eighth of an ounce of Motorbreath OG, the first legal sale of recreational weed in Illinois history.
Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Nick Slusinski and his wife Jennifer, of Plainfield, got in line at 1:30 a.m. and were the first customers to enter Rise Joliet. The store, which earned its license on the eve of legalization day, is the first standalone recreational dispensary in the state.

”We don’t have to hide it anymore,” said Jennifer Slusinski. “We don’t have to feel guilty, I guess.”

Inside, Joliet Police Officer Jeremy Eaton acknowledged he has “been pro-cannabis for a long time.”

“It always should have been legalized,” Eaton said. “We need to break that stigma about police and cannabis and I want to let people know that we’re not the bad guy.”

It was generally peaceful at dispensaries in the city, Chicago police said.

In many lines, it was a jovial scene. As passing drivers tooted their horns in support, some people waiting couldn’t hold back their enthusiasm.

“Guys, we’re making history, right here in Illinois,” one woman shouted outside Dispensary 33.

“Weed is legal,” another woman cheered.

Marijuana flower sells out; might not be in stock Thursday

Enthusiasm aside, many customers faced long lines outside stores and had limited choices once they got inside. Those issues plagued other states that legalized recreational weed and have long been expected.

NuMed Chicago near West Town had to turn away about a dozen customers about 30 minutes before closing at 7 p.m. due to the sheer volume of people visiting the store.

Only those who had checked in at the dispensary around noon and waited several hours could get inside to be served, said Jonah Rapino, director of marketing for NuMed.

According to Rapino, the dispensary ran out of marijuana flower, the traditional dry form of the plant that is smoked, around 4 p.m., but still had plenty of edibles, concentrates and other products. He estimated they served about 500 customers Wednesday.

One customer, a teacher who asked to remain anonymous, said she had been waiting in line for almost 30 minutes. NuMed was her third stop after being turned away at two other dispensaries where the lines were too long.

”It’s disappointing but to be expected,” she said.

A customer shows off his purchase at Verilife Marijuana Dispensary in southwest suburban Romeoville.
A customer shows off his purchase at Verilife Marijuana Dispensary in southwest suburban Romeoville on Wednesday, the first day of legalized recreational cannabis in Illinois.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The store reopens at 10 a.m. Thursday, but Rapino said he doesn’t know when marijuana flower will be available again.

At The Herbal Care Center on the Near West Side, hundreds of people in line were offered free cocoa and coffee and had the option to wait in warming tents.

“It’s a mob scene,” said Michael Mandera, the store’s general manager.

Inside, recreational customers were reminded every 15 minutes that no cannabis flower or pre-rolled joints were available for them to buy. Mandera explained that was done to ensure existing medical patients aren’t left in the lurch in the wake of a supply shortage.

Customers at MOCA in Logan Square were able to wait inside Emporium, a neighboring bar that shares the same owner and had a bevy of arcade and table games to pass the time. Nevertheless, wait times were stretching beyond four hours by 2 p.m.

While the dispensary was already limiting what customers could buy, employees also alerted customers that flower had run out by then.

Danny Marks, MOCA’s owner, said the store expects a new shipment of flower Friday but noted the store’s inventory has been scaled back recently. And patients in the state’s expanding medical cannabis program have bought up a lot of supply in the weeks leading up to recreational legalization, he added.

“We were already experiencing shortages,” Marks noted.

Another unforeseen problem related to point-of-sale systems also temporarily disrupted some transactions at a handful of Illinois dispensaries. Paul Isaac, spokesman of the Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, said the glitch was caused by cannabis concentrates that were miscoded in the state’s product tracking system.

“The state’s traceability system vendor, BioTrack, has already resolved the issue,” Isaac said.

Nick Slusinski and his wife Jennifer, of Plainfield, who started standing in line at 1:30 a.m. Jan. 1 ,2 020, were the first customers to enter Rise Joliet, a cannabis dispensary in southwest suburban Joliet, make their purchase on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Illinois.
Nick Slusinski and his wife Jennifer, of Plainfield, who got in line at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, were the first customers to enter Rise Joliet, a cannabis dispensary in southwest suburban Joliet.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

High cost of getting high

Another issue that surprised some shoppers Wednesday was cost.

Legal weed, with the high taxes set out by law, is significantly pricier than pot on the black market.

A 22-year-old Loyola University student, who asked to remain anonymous, bought an eighth of an ounce each of Durban Poison and Pineapple Express at Dispensary 33 Wednesday night. He estimated he paid about $150 total, including taxes. That’s as much as twice as much as similar high-quality product would cost on the street in Illinois, according to Budzu, a site which tracks pot prices around country.

”It’s pricer than at street value, but you pay for the quality and convenience,” he said.

Robbie Arrendondo, of West Town, bought two packs of edible gummies at The Herbal Care Center, which cost about $74, including $17 in taxes.

He said he didn’t mind paying a premium.

“Just wanted to experience what the first day was like,” he said.

David Richardson, 29, sits in his living room in Rogers Park and smokes marijuana he bought from Dispensary 33, 5001 N. Clark St., after waiting in line for more than eight hours.
David Richardson, 29, sits in his living room in Rogers Park and smokes marijuana he bought from Dispensary 33, 5001 N. Clark St., after waiting in line for more than eight hours on the first day of legalized recreational cannabis sales in Illinois.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Customers cross state borders to partake

Some customers drove hours to get a chance to buy legal weed — because prohibitions remained in the states where they lived.

Samuel Rondeau, 22, of Kenosha County in Wisconsin, was the first out-of-state customer at Rise Mundelein.

Leaving with gummies, a vape pen and some marijuana concentrate called shatter — and with $185 less in cash, including $44 toward taxes — Rondeau said he was thrilled to be part of changing times in Illinois.

”It’s crazy to be able to just walk into a store and buy some weed,” Rondeau said.

Victoria Kizewic was among a group of four that drove two hours from Racine, Wisconsin, to buy some edibles and pre-rolled joints from Dispensary 33.

“This is the first day that it’s legal,” said Kizewic. “You wanna be there to tell future generations.”

In addition to legal weed, Kizewic and her friends planned to sample another product easier to get in Chicago — deep-dish pizza.

Parmelia Herrera, 57, of Florida, was visiting her son and decided to stock up on vape pens at The Herbal Care Center.

Herrera, a cannabis user since age 16, said she’s been concerned about buying black-market products after a mysterious vape-related illness started sweeping the nation.

“You don’t have to worry about what’s in it when you buy from these places,” said Herrera, who favors vaping cannabis because it’s discrete and she can hide it from her grandkids.

She hoped the cops at the airports she’s traveling through wouldn’t unearth her stash when she flew home on Wednesday night; Chicago cops have indicated it won’t be a problem as long as flyers don’t exceed possession limits set out in the law.

Hundreds of people wait in line at Verilife Marijuana Dispensary in southwest suburban Romeoville.
Hundreds of people wait in line at Verilife Marijuana Dispensary in southwest suburban Romeoville on Wednesday, the first day of legalized recreational cannabis in Illinois.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Let there be light

Many folks who came out Wednesday were just happy marijuana was being brought out of the shadows.

Will Johnson waited over two hours to get inside Midway Dispensary in Vittum Park, where customers were only able to purchase just over a third of the 30 grams of cannabis flower allowed by law.

Johnson said he’s happy to ditch his unreliable dealers for legal pot shops that offer convenience and a variety of high-quality products.

“We’re in Chicago where weed’s been illegal all of our lives,” Johnson said. “You get a chance to get some legal weed and you don’t gotta call a drug dealer and ask them what do they have, are they up, all that type of [stuff].

“You don’t gotta worry about some weed not smoking right, tasting right. You can go get it yourself,” he said.

At Zen Leaf in Norwood Park, a woman who identified herself only as Jenn said she’s excited about being “able to get [marijuana] without looking over your shoulder.”

“Nothing is going to change for me — it’s not a social thing for me, it’s private. To do it in my own home is going to be cool,” Jenn said.

In addition, Jenn said the steep taxes on recreational marijuana aren’t a deterrent for her.

“I would pay more just for the peace of mind,” she added.

Kris Krane, president of Mission in South Shore, said the overwhelmingly positive response from the public was “heartwarming.”

“To see this many people be able to come and purchase cannabis legally, in a store that we’ve taken a lot of pride in building, that we think is a professional and welcoming and community-oriented environment ... for them to be able to be here and buy cannabis here with no stigma, no fear of arrest — this is what we’ve been working towards.”

Contributing: Daily Herald