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‘Incredibly unfun’ pot industry in Illinois is missing out. Here’s how that could change

“People want to smoke marijuana in places that they couldn’t before because it was taboo and illegal,” a cannabis consultant told the Sun-Times. “Just like a bar, just like coffee, this a huge experiential thing.”

Cannabis consultant Mike Malcolm uses a vaporizer in a North Side home a few days after recreational cannabis sales kicked of in Illinois.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

As the city hurtles toward a full reopening, drinks are now flowing freely at bars and restaurants as Chicagoans emerge from their couches and try to get back to normal.

Weed smokers, however, still have nowhere to legally get stoned in public, meaning pot use largely remains relegated to the shadows over a year after the drug was fully legalized statewide.

In other states, public consumption lounges and smoke-filled party buses are driving tourism by highlighting what recreational weed is supposed to be all about: Having a good time.

“People want to smoke marijuana in places that they couldn’t before because it was taboo and illegal,” said Andy Seeger, a cannabis consultant who previously worked as an industry analyst in Chicago. “Just like a bar, just like coffee, this a huge experiential thing.”

Andy Seeger
LinkedIn

But as it stands, Seeger said Illinois’ highly regulated pot market is “incredibly unfun,” likening the dispensary experience to “standing in line at the pharmacy” and criticizing existing pot firms for failing to create safe havens for getting high.

“They have no interest in helping the stoners or making this fun. They’re trying to commoditize it. They’re trying to make it [a consumer packaged good] and [that] looks very, very regulated. And the more regulated it is, the more their monopoly holds,” Seeger said, remarking on the handful of major cannabis firms that have an outsized stake in the industry.

And while some businesses want to offer an outlet for customers to indulge, they’re hamstrung by state and local rules.

The prospect of allowing on-site cannabis consumption at businesses prompted spirited debates among both state lawmakers and aldermen. In the end, the state law that legalized recreational weed let localities decide whether to allow dispensaries and tobacco shops to set up consumption spaces, offering an exemption to the stringent Smoke Free Illinois Act that banned indoor smoking at public places.

At least two such lounges have earned local approval downstate but neither has opened. And in Chicago, the City Council still hasn’t set local rules.

Legislation introduced earlier this year in Springfield could also pave the way for a robust cannabis tourism industry, but it’s languished in committees without getting a vote. The bill would allow municipalities or counties to dole out licenses for pop-up events, cannabis clubs and tours “that will allow for the sale and consumption of cannabis or cannabis-infused products.”

A waiting room at Dispensary 33 at 1152 W. Randolph St. could become a consumption lounge if the city gives owners permission to do so.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
Inside Dispensary 33 in the West Loop.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

Comedy clubs, weed tours and more in limbo

In the meantime, some plans hang in limbo.

Bryan Zises, co-owner of Dispensary 33, said he wants to work with a “social equity” partner to open a weed lounge at his new shop in the West Loop. Zises envisions using the store’s basement for a stony venue that could host comedy and musical acts, although he also has a large space on the ground floor with a long counter and tables that currently serves as a waiting room and could be repurposed.

“It’s available and it’s perfectly set up for all that,” Zises said. “I would love to be able to turn over the consumption lounge to a group that can elevate Chicago music and Chicago’s art scene in a way to bring fun back to cannabis.”

Dispensary 33, which Zises touted as the last independent weed store in the city, has long sought to bring cannabis and culture together. Most notably, Zises and his team have hosted a street festival outside Dispensary 33’s flagship location in Uptown to celebrate 4/20, marijuana’s high holiday.

Zises claimed aldermen “don’t even know how much money they’re leaving on the table” by failing to set local rules for on-site consumption. But after a meeting with Zises the following day, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said he’s now planning to draft an ordinance to do just that.

Burnett, whose ward includes the new Dispensary 33 location at 1152 W. Randolph St., said he intends to require all consumption lounges to have a “social equity” partner as a way to bolster minority involvement in the lily-white weed industry, adopting the same language the statewide legalization law uses for applicants getting a leg-up in the licensing process.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) speaks with the media after a City Council meeting in September 2015. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Zises isn’t the only dispensary owner thinking about turning a pot shop into a cultural hub.

Jonah Rapino, a spokesman for the Wheaton-based pot firm NuEra, said there have been active discussions about allowing pot use at the firm’s new stores in the West Loop and downstate Champaign and Pekin. But they’ve been stymied by concerns that the current law wouldn’t allow the firm to carry out its grand vision.

Rapino said the company would like to offer cannabis education opportunities, as well events with DJs and bands.

“We would want to be a destination,” said Rapino, who believes that opening up the floodgates for public pot use would be a boon for both the cannabis and tourism industries.

“Having Illinois be the number one social consumption state in the United States would be a huge move and a huge benefit,” he said. “I just think way more people would be here that usually would be going to, say, California, Colorado, Las Vegas and other places if there were lots more options for social consumption.”

For now, NuEra has teamed up with The Hideout, a beloved North Side music venue, where the company recently hosted a sidewalk market to celebrate 4/20.

“A wine tour without sipping wine’

The firm has also partnered with dChi High Tours, a company that launched in April and offers pot-centric tours centered on education and culture. The company currently offers a range of themed tours, including one that brings guests to a brewery and another that ends at a comedy show.

Chi High Tours offers pot-centric tours in Chicago focused on education and culture.
Provided photo/James Gordon

But due to the current restrictions, riders can’t get stoned during the tours — though they are offered CBD-infused edibles. In addition, they’re taken to The Herbal Care Center on the Near West Side to purchase weed and then coached on consuming it.

James Gordon, Chi High Tours’ executive director and founder, conceded that his tours currently lack “the party bus feeling,” though he hopes the law will change to allow for that. Gordon complained that the state is still taking a “hard line” approach to cannabis and isn’t looking to Colorado and California, where he claimed businesses offering public consumption are “everywhere and have an opportunity to grow.”

“At the end of the day, a wine tour without sipping wine just becomes only so much of an experience,” Gordon said, drawing a comparison to hammer home his point.

As Gordon tries to gain a foothold in Illinois’ cannabis world, he said he understands the struggles of the social equity applicants vying for long-delayed permits. Originally from Brooklyn, Gordon was sentenced to four years in a federal penitentiary in Florida after being convicted on a gun charge. While in prison, his dying father visited to express a last wish: “Please change.”

James Gordon

Gordon has since grown into a serial entrepreneur and he now hopes to expand his cannabis tour model into five other cities. Though he lives in Florida and didn’t apply for the new licenses here, Gordon said he wants to be an example for minority business owners hoping to crack into the weed industry.

“Please keep striving, keep pushing. Because greatness is around the corner.”