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West Loop cafe infusing food with ‘diet weed’ draws long lines, complaints — prompting alderman to intervene

The early success of Canna Cafe, 1301 W. Washington, comes as lawmakers and players in the legal cannabis industry call for a clampdown on the hemp-derived compound known as Delta-8-THC, which is similar to the component in weed that gets users high.

Devonte Odum, a staff member of CannaCafe at 1301 W. Washington Blvd. in the West Loop, works the counter on Tuesday afternoon, April 13.
Mengshin Lin/Sun-Times

A new West Loop restaurant that infuses its offerings with a trendy, unregulated drug commonly described as “diet weed” quickly grew so popular that the local alderman had to intervene after neighbors complained about its long lines.

The early success of Canna Cafe, 1301 W. Washington, comes as lawmakers and players in the legal cannabis industry call for a clampdown on Delta-8-THC, a hemp-derived compound similar to the component in weed that gets users high. The restaurant, which opened March 13 to great fanfare, uses the psychoactive substance in various menu items, including burgers, pizzas and drinks.

Tiffani Piearson, a West Garfield Park native, is partnered in the Black-owned restaurant and two other locations in Bensenville and Atlanta. Though Piearson said business in Chicago is “booming,” she feels the hotspot’s diverse clientele has led to targeted harassment from residents of the affluent community who have complained about lines stretching down the block.

“It’s just been really despicable,” Piearson said in an interview. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never experienced anything to where people just don’t want to see certain people. … I’ve never had to bring up race in relevance to anything. So for me, it’s been kind of weird that I even have to go through these things. But it’s happening.”

Piearson noted that city officials were even called to Canna Cafe following a complaint about the lines, which she found suspicious given that other businesses in the area also have customers queue up outside.

Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. speaks at a press conference in August.
Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. speaks at a press conference in August.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Burnett: ‘People are ... afraid about what they don’t know’

Ald. Walter Burnett, whose 27th Ward includes the restaurant, said he personally tried to intervene last week after the issue was raised to him. By then, Piearson said Canna Cafe had already resolved the issue by setting up a reservation system — a move she claimed has resulted in a significant “revenue slash.”

Burnett framed the issue as a “miscommunication” that he believes stems from concerns over parking and loading. He said he encouraged the business to apply for a loading zone permit.

Burnett acknowledged that one of the owners expressed concerns that the scrutiny from neighbors was racially motivated, though he doesn’t believe that to be the case. The alderman said he saw more white customers than Black patrons when he visited.

“If the racist thing is warranted, I would stand opposed to that,” he said.

Asked whether Delta-8 needs to be regulated, Burnett said he hadn’t heard of the substance and wasn’t aware that it’s an integral part of the new restaurant’s offerings, which he described as a “legitimate business” that aims to “respect the community.”

“I think people are always concerned and afraid about what they don’t know,” he said.

Burnett’s ward already boasts five of the city’s 19 licensed dispensaries — more than any other ward. The alderman, a recovered alcoholic, notably opposed NuEra’s plan last year to set up shop near the Haymarket Center, the city’s largest drug treatment center. After the opposition from Burnett and residents, the Wheaton-based firm has since opened a pot store elsewhere in his ward.

Canna Cafe is at 1301 W. Washington Blvd. in the West Loop.
Mengshin Lin/Sun-Times

Delta-8 grows in popularity citywide

A growing number of businesses in Chicago are cashing in on Delta-8, which has rapidly grown in popularity after the federal Farm Bill of 2018 made legal the sale and distribution of hemp and its byproducts. The law specifically excluded Delta-9-THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, but there’s no mention of its mellower relative.

While the two cannabinoids are similar, Delta-8 isn’t subject to the same stiff taxes and regulations as legal weed containing Delta-9. As a result, customers at Canna Cafe are allowed to consume infused dishes and drinks on site. That flies in the face of a hard-fought provision in the state’s marijuana legalization law that restricts public consumption, which isn’t allowed in Chicago yet.

The Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, the trade group representing the state’s pot companies, is now lobbying state and federal lawmakers to prohibit sales of Delta-8 in places other than licensed dispensaries. Meanwhile, legislation already introduced in Springfield would require products containing Delta-8, CBD and other unchecked cannabinoids to be tested and labeled.

Tiffani Piearson, the owner of Canna Cafe
Mengshin Lin/Sun-Times

Those moves could stifle business owners like Piearson, who described Delta-8 as the “loophole way” of getting involved in the increasingly competitive cannabis industry.

Piearson noted that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s lofty goal of diversifying the white-dominated industry hasn’t been met. And with licenses for new cannabis dispensaries delayed indefinitely over a year after legalization, she said social equity remains a “huge issue” in the Black community.

“It’s really tearing our city apart,” said Piearson. “For us, this was more than just opening something with cannabis. ... We’re just hoping for the best with that regulation.”