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How recreational weed went from illegal to essential in 3 months

The state allowing pot shops to stay open despite a “stay-at-home order” that closed other businesses is “a sign of how far we’ve come on this issue,” one advocate said.

Cannabis businesses in Illinois were deemed “essential” during the stay-at-home order Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Cannabis businesses in Illinois were deemed “essential” during the stay-at-home order Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Throngs of high-minded shoppers started flooding pot dispensaries when sales of recreational weed kicked off in Illinois at the start of the year.

Less than three months later, that type of mass clamoring is strictly forbidden as social distancing measures have been put in place to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus. In the uncertain age of COVID-19, when news and information travels almost as fast as the virus itself, Jan. 1 likely seems like a lifetime ago to many cannabis users.

Unlike thousands of businesses, however, pot stores have been able to keep their doors open under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order, which labeled all dispensaries and cultivation centers “essential businesses.” The decision to allow the high times to keep rolling amid the rising public health crisis is an acknowledgment that, for many Illinoisans, buying weed is as vital as doing laundry or grocery shopping.

“People all over the nation are running to cannabis right now,” said Margo Vesely, executive of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the country’s oldest weed advocacy group.

“People are selling out just like we are selling out of necessities, just like toilet paper and bread. A lot of people are dependent on it,” added Vesely, who noted that alcohol sales are also still allowed.

Similar to ibuprofen

As similar stay-at-home directives are being issued in states across the country, many have deemed marijuana businesses essential. In Massachusetts, medical sales are allowed to continue but recreational operations were forced to shut down on Monday — a move pot advocates said was short-sighted.

Vesely argued that it’s important for people who use the drug for health and wellness purposes to continue to have access to recreational pot. That’s because many of them simply can’t afford to pay for a doctor’s visit to get a prescription or the $100 registration fee for a medical license.

Mission dispensary’s President Kris Krane
Mission dispensary’s President Kris Krane
Tom Schuba/Sun-Times file photo

Meanwhile, Kris Krane, president of the Mission dispensary in South Chicago, likened recreational cannabis to over-the-counter medications, like ibuprofen.

“Saying we can’t be open for adult-use but we can only be open for medical would be akin to saying that CVS can only sell prescription medication,” Krane said.

On top of that, Krane noted, many people in Illinois simply need “stress relief in a time like this.”

“People might snicker about it, but it’s incredibly important,” said Krane. “People need some way to chill out, to unwind.”

Political sea change

While recreational weed is now considered essential in Illinois, it was still illegal just three months ago. The about-face can largely be attributed to Pritzker, who ran on a platform to end Illinois’ pot prohibition and made good on the promise.

Months before Pritzker announced his candidacy in 2017, his Republican predecessor Bruce Rauner came out strongly against the legalization of recreational marijuana, which he said would be a “mistake.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times
Former Gov. Bruce Rauner
Max Herman/For the Sun-Times file photo

Throughout his single term as governor, Rauner resisted multiple efforts to expand the medical program — though he also signed a bill that decriminalized pot in 2016. When he struck a deal with lawmakers that same year to extend the medical program for three years and add two qualifying conditions, he forced the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to disband, Chicago Magazine reported.

The Chicago Democrats who led the legalization push, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and state Sen. Heather Steans, first introduced legislation to legalize recreational weed the following year, but their identical bills didn’t gain much traction in either house of the General Assembly.

By the end of Rauner’s tenure, he signed off on an expansion to the program by establishing the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program, which gives people prescribed opioids access to medical weed. But even when he signed that bill, Rauner said he was “very much opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana.”

After unseating Rauner in the 2018 election, Pritzker championed new legislation introduced by Steans, Cassidy and other pro-pot lawmakers that sought to make the state’s nascent cannabis industry an inclusive engine for social change. In June, just over six months after taking office, he fully legalized weed statewide with the stroke of a pen.

For Krane, who has worked in the cannabis world for decades, Pritzker’s latest move to deem pot businesses as essential — which drew virtually no public opposition — is “a sign of how far we’ve come on this issue.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, state Sen. Heather Steans, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy hold up legislation that makes Illinois the nation’s 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, state Sen. Heather Steans, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy hold up legislation that makes Illinois the nation’s 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo