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Cannabis Resource Fair attendees reflect on 1st month of legal weed: ‘The bar set here is tremendous’

The free event was held at the UIC Forum and featured booths with 65 business, organizations and nonprofits working in and around the pot industry.

A man speaks with a representative with Elementos Verde a vendor at Chicago’s first Cannabis Resource Fair at the UIC Forum on Saturday.
An attendee of the Cannabis Resource Fair held Saturday at UIC Forum speaks with a representative with Elementos Verde.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A light odor of marijuana could be detected in the air Saturday at the Cannabis Resource Fair, which drew hundreds of attendees and sought to connect them with information about Illinois’ newly legal weed industry.

During the event, held at UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road, industry leaders and public officials reflected on the first month of recreational sales in the state by sharing business tips, employment opportunities and lessons they have learned in the short time since the law went into effect Jan 1.

The free event featured 65 booths that hosted businesses, organizations and nonprofits working in and around the pot industry.

“We are trying to set a standard and move Illinois to a position where any other state that [legalizes marijuana] after us has to do at least what we did, if not more,” said Toi Hutchinson, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s senior advisor on cannabis. “The bar set here is tremendous and we’ve got to keep fighting for this moving forward.”

Hutchinson praised the state for rolling out its recreational pot program in a “thoughtful, slow and methodical process” to ensure equity. She said that also includes taking future steps to grow diversity in the industry, use its revenue to invest in underserved communities and undo the harm caused by marijuana’s prior criminalization in the state — though it remains illegals at the federal level.

“All of those silos work together, and the states that only concentrated on the money without talking about criminal justice reform or undoing harm have failed,” Hutchinson said.

From left, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Wanda James, founder and CEO of Simply Pure Dispensary, and State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, speak at Chicago’s first Cannabis Resource Fair at the UIC Forum Saturday.
From left, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Wanda James, founder and CEO of Simply Pure Dispensary, and State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, speak at Chicago’s first Cannabis Resource Fair at the UIC Forum Saturday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot kicked off the fair in a key-note panel discussion with State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who sponsored the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, and Wanda James, founder and CEO of Simply Pure Dispensary, the nation’s first black-owned marijuana dispensary.

“We want to ensure recreational cannabis is not only successful in Chicago, but serves to uplift the economic life of our neighborhoods and residents, particularly those in black and brown communities most affected by the war on drugs,” Lightfoot said.

Several hundred people of varying ethnicities, ages and genders attended the fair to learn how they could take part in the state’s new industry, too.

“Looking around this room, the amount of people of color and women sitting in this audience is fantastic,” said James. “We didn’t see any of this 10 years ago.”

During one panel discussion, Richard Wallace, founder of Equity and Transformation, an organization dedicated to building social and economic equity for black Chicagoans, explained how background checks, entry fees and other requirements to participate in the legal cannabis industry act as barriers for black and brown people.

“It’s important to ground us in that reality because there are still people in jail right now for cannabis, so this work is done on their backs,” Wallace said after beginning his discussion with a moment of silence for people impacted by the war on drugs.

Hundreds of people attended Chicago’s first Cannabis Resource Fair at the UIC Forum Saturday.
Hundreds of people Saturday fill UIC Forum for Chicago’s first ever Cannabis Resource Fair.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Willie “J.R.” Fleming, a Chicago activist who helped organize the nonprofit Hemp in the Hood, also attended the fair and spoke about how expunging records for marijuana convictions is necessary step.

“For the last 28 years, I was plagued with my past and couldn’t get my records expunged,” Fleming said. “Although I fought for people, it felt like nobody was fighting for me.”

But Fleming said he found relief Thursday when 16 marijuana charges were expunged from his record as the state continues its review of people’s previous marijuana convictions.

“I am so thankful for this second chance,” he said.

Information about the state’s expungement process was available to attendees, as well as advice on how to start business, find jobs, navigate city regulations and find contracting opportunities within the cannabis industry.

“This is the end of prohibition, but it’s just the beginning of what legalization will look like,” Hutchinson said. “We have a lot of work to do, but it doesn’t happen unless we have people on the ground, in the community and holding the state accountable.”