Illinois Weed Buyers Welcome New Year, And Legal Sales

Dispensary 33 Opens On First Day Of Legal Weed Sales In Illinois
Buyers of recreational weed turned out at Illinois dispensaries on the first day of legal sales. Tyler Finnell (right) gets help selecting a marijuana vape pen at Dispensary 33 on Chicago's North Side. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Dispensary 33 Opens On First Day Of Legal Weed Sales In Illinois
Buyers of recreational weed turned out at Illinois dispensaries on the first day of legal sales. Tyler Finnell (right) gets help selecting a marijuana vape pen at Dispensary 33 on Chicago's North Side. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Illinois Weed Buyers Welcome New Year, And Legal Sales

Updated at 12:18 p.m. 

Hundreds of pot-seeking patrons lined the streets outside weed shops across Chicago early Wednesday as employees inside dispensed joints, edibles, and other legal cannabis treats.

Several dispensaries across the city opened their doors at 6 a.m. — the earliest allowed under state law — on the first day of legal sales in Illinois, the 11th state to join the recreational weed market.

By 6 a.m. more than 300 patrons were already lined up in the cold on the corner of Grace and Clark Streets near the Sunnyside Dispensary in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Several noted that the moment meant more than just the ability to get high legally.

“Beyond just legalization, we need to focus on restoring communities that have been harmed so much by the war on drugs,” said Sunnyside patron Emma Todd.

Others were there to celebrate the moment. (See photos from dispensaries from across Chicago and the suburbs.) 

“This is a historic event,” said Jordan Mortell, who got in line around 4 a.m with her friend, Nick Catalano. “Why wouldn't you want to be here? It's the end of prohibition. Imagine it being the ‘30s when alcohol prohibition ended. How exciting that was being at the bars when they first opened.”

Sunnyside is one of 10 dispensaries greenlit by the state to sell recreational cannabis in Chicago. Most dispensaries are on the North Side of the city, and all were previously medicinal cannabis shops only.

Sunnyside Dispensary
Patrons anticipated the opening of the Sunnyside Dispensary at 3812 N. Clark Street in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The state’s existing medical dispensaries got first crack at opening shop. They’ll get a five-month head start before the state grants licenses to industry newcomers in May. That provision of the law has gotten significant criticism.

Still, state officials are proud of the social equity components of the law. One of the first people to buy cannabis at the Lakeview store Wednesday morning was Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton.

“We believe the social equity aspects of this legislation should be a model for the entire country,” she said, standing outside of the store holding a bag of clementine gummy edibles. “Yesterday, Governor Pritzker pardoned 11,017 low-level cannabis arrests and convictions. That's just the beginning. We have hundreds of thousands more who will be eligible for having their records expunged. That's a big deal.”

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton buys recreational weed
Just minutes after the legal start of recreational sales of marijuana in the state, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton made some purchases at Sunnyside Dispensary on Chicago's North Side. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Patrons paid about $20 for a gram of cannabis flower at Sunnyside, which is still more expensive than black market weed — about $15 for a gram and $200 per ounce, according to crowd-source site budzu.com.

While some said they were planning to light up or consume before they got home, others said they would follow the law and wait until they were on legal private property.

Jackie Ryan of Forest Park arrived at Sunnyside at 3:30 a.m. and was the first customer through the line.

“I got some indica, some sativa, some pre-roll, some flower and some edibles, but I spent only $120,” she said holding a white and orange bag of products. “I’m going to go home, maybe eat a little and smoke a little of this.”

At least two police cars were parked outside the Lakeview dispensary, but they didn’t have any interaction with customers during the first half hour of sales.

The city of Chicago said police officers are looking to educate violators on the law rather than ticket them, at least in the first few weeks of legal sales. But it’s being left up to individual officers, and consuming in public could cost you a $50 ticket on the first offense, and $100 for subsequent offenses within the city.

Vape Pens Sold On First Day Of Legal Recreational Weed Sales
Vape pens were among the first items purchased at Chicago's Dispensary 33 on the first day of legal sales of recreational marijuana in Illinois Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

In north suburban Evanston, Tara Weintraub said she got in line to enter the MedMen dispensary on Maple Avenue around 9:30 a.m. and, as of 11 a.m., was still waiting to get inside. Weintraub, an Evanston resident, said she wanted to "celebrate" the first day of legal sales in Illinois, even though she knows prices are likely to be more than they are on the street.

"It's more about just the general principle, being able to come and buy it," she said.

Big crowds showed up early at Mission dispensary at 8554 S. Commercial Ave. on Chicago's South Side. The business even provided valet parking for the occasion.

A grandmother who would only give her first name, Diane, was waiting in line to buy some marijuana to smoke. 

"It's about time," she said of legalization in Illinois. "So they need to do something about fixing what's happened to people criminally because of it."

Buyers who rose with the sun (or stayed up all night) to purchase cannabis Wednesday may have been better off than latecomers. In the lead up to legalization, dispensaries and industry experts have been warning of imminent supply shortages.

Flower and concentrates are expected to be in the shortest supply, according to NuMed Dispensary on the North Side. Edibles and vape cartridges are expected to be more accessible.

Medical card holders will be prioritized as mandated by state law, especially in the case of a shortage.

Shortages are expected largely because of a tight cap on both dispensaries and weed cultivators in Illinois compared to other states. There are about 20 weed cultivators serving the entire state, with up to 55 dispensaries. That’s compared to, for example, more than 200 growers in Denver.

Lines Forming At Mission Dispensary In Chicago
Hours after recreational weed sales started, lines were still forming at Mission Dispensary at 8554 S. Commercial in Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Illinois residents can possess up to 30 grams of cannabis flower (enough to roll about 60 joints), up to 5 grams of cannabis concentrate, and edibles with no more than a total of 500 mg of THC, the ingredient that gets you high. An appropriate dose for a beginner is about 10 mg of THC, according to a Sunnyside Dispensary employee. Those allotted amounts are all cut in half for non-residents.

The Cook County Health and Hospital System last week said it was preparing for emergency room visits due to overdosing. They’re particularly concerned about people ingesting edibles, which take longer to kick in than marijuana that’s smoked, and can be highly concentrated.

“People might not know that,” said Dr. Steven Aks, a toxicologist at Cook County Health. “Cannabis that will become available will be higher concentration than people may have experienced in the past, and there’s definitely greater risk to these higher concentration products.”

Overdosing can result in extreme confusion, anxiety, paranoia, increased blood pressure, and severe nausea or vomiting.

Mission Illinois Dispensary's Edible Cannabis Products
Mission Illinois Dispensary on Chicago's South Side offered sour cherry gummies and other cannabis-infused edible products on the first day of recreational weed sales in the state. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The city of Chicago launched a public safety campaign geared at young people, who are at particular risk of negative side effects from using cannabis.

The Herbal Care Center Of Chicago On The First Sale of Recreational Marijuana
Sales were brisk at marijuana dispensaries across the Chicago area on the first day of legal recreational sales. Care specialist Tera Verdak was busy advising customers at The Herbal Care Center on the city's West Side. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org. Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.