'Got my legal weed': Recreational marijuana sales start with enthusiasm
With long lines in cold weather, several rounds of ID checks, food trucks and tropical music, legal recreational marijuana sales in Illinois got under way on New Year's Day.
And with hundreds of customers in line at opening time, busy dispensaries led the way into the new era of the Cannabis Regulation and Tax act with what company executives and industry leaders described as largely smooth operations.
"OK, guys, get your IDs out," Ben Kovler, CEO of Green Thumb Industries, called out at 6 a.m. Wednesday at one of his company's stores, Rise Mundelein, to an estimated 500 people lined up in the predawn chill. "Here we go."
Rise Mundelein was the first store in the Northwest and West suburbs to begin recreational sales as it opened, with tents pitched and heat lamps running, for customers seeking a substance long rendered illegal in the state and still against the law as a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level.
Aaron Brooks, 43, of Libertyville was third in line before Rise opened and first to walk out with his purchase.
"Got my legal weed," he said, carrying a white envelope stapled at the top and marked with the "Rise" logo in blue letters.
Other customers got their first legal weed later in the morning in North Aurora, as Verilife opened at 9 a.m., and in Addison, when EarthMed opened at 10 a.m., both to long lines estimated at roughly 500 people.
"We're used to high volume, so everything is good," Mike Perez, chief operating officer of EarthMed, said after the first hour of sales. "Everyone's just excited because it's a historic day."
A similar scene played out at other stores across the state, as recreational sales began in places including Canton, Chicago, Joliet, Ottawa, Quincy, Rockford and Romeoville.
Stores near Illinois' borders attracted customers from neighboring states, including Samuel Rondeau, 22, of Kenosha County in Wisconsin, who was the first out-of-state customer at Rise Mundelein. Leaving with his gummies, a vape pen and some marijuana concentrate called shatter -- and with $185 less in cash, including $44 toward taxes -- Rondeau said he was thrilled to be part of changing times in Illinois.
"It's crazy to be able to just walk into a store and buy some weed," Rondeau said.
As sales began Wednesday, customers had to adhere to the possession limits in the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act. The law allows Illinois residents 21 and older to have up to 30 grams of cannabis flower; up to 500 mg of THC in cannabis-infused products, such as gummies, chocolates or brownies; and up to 5 grams of a cannabis concentrate. Nonresidents can have half these amounts.
Rise Mundelein imposed a store-set limit on flower cannabis, allowing customers to buy an eighth of an ounce, but Kovler said the store was selling up to state limits of pre-rolls, edibles, vapes and concentrates. Perez said EarthMed also was imposing limits in an effort to make sure all opening-day customers could find some product available.
Kovler called the line outside of the Mundelein store, which began forming slowly at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday and grew more quickly after 2 a.m. or so, a sign of a "tidal wave of demand."
But not everyone cheered the start of the new recreational marijuana market.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national group that promotes what it calls a "health-first approach to marijuana policy," instead applauded more than 60 communities across the state -- including 47 in the suburbs -- that have banned recreational sales within their boundaries.
"In the end, Big Pot only cares about being able to peddle its addictive, highly potent products in disadvantaged communities as it takes its playbook from Big Tobacco," Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said in a news release. "This is what we have seen in every single state that has gone down this road, and we have no reason to expect Illinois' experience to be any different."
Still, there are 43 towns in the Northwest and West suburbs that have set zoning regulations to allow recreational sales. Seven more remain undecided.
Not all communities that allow recreational sales are home to a dispensary. The state issued nearly 50 "early approval" licenses to established sellers in the medical marijuana program to begin recreational sales, but some of them were not doled out until New Year's Eve.
And some businesses that received these licenses were unable to open because of local zoning regulations. Licensed shops prohibited by municipal rules from opening included Verilife in Arlington Heights, New Age Care in Mount Prospect and 3C Compassionate Care Center in Naperville.
Meanwhile, Sunnyside in Buffalo Grove gained a state license and local zoning, but will continue to sell only to medical patients for now; and Zen Leaf in St. Charles received a state license, but has not yet gotten local clearing to conduct recreational sales at its current facility.
As sales began in Mundelein, North Aurora and Addison, police directed traffic and helped with parking.
Addison police Chief Timothy "Bill" Hayden and North Aurora Deputy Chief Scott Buziecki both called the lines for stores in their towns "orderly" and said there had been no public safety issues with early sales. In Addison, Hayden said, officers issued parking tickets for vehicles parked too close to intersections, fire hydrants or crosswalks in the industrial area where EarthMed is located. And in North Aurora, officers are encouraging drivers to avoid the area of Route 31 and Airport Road near Verilife if they're not looking to make a purchase to prevent traffic jams as the initial rush ebbs and flows.
During the first several hours of sales, cannabis industry leaders said they had not heard of issues with customers smoking or consuming cannabis in public or otherwise abusing the privileges newly afforded them. There were a few software issues with point-of-sale technology, said Pam Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Industry Association of Illinois, but customers largely were patient and happy despite having to wait an average of three hours to spend an average of $200 in cash on their purchases.
"That whole tagline of being responsible once you purchase your product has permeated the customer base, and I'm happy to see that," Althoff said. "They knew as they walked out they were going to their cars, it (their purchase) was sealed, they were going home."
Customers in Mundelein said the ability to buy the cannabis products they want -- without what Steve Libby, 35, of Buffalo Grove, called "shady, back-alley deals" -- was worth the wait and the taxes they paid.
Barbara Wiedman, 65, of Crystal Lake, who said she's "old-school" and "from Woodstock days," was the first woman in line at Rise Mundelein, seeking vape pens, gummies and flower. She said she went a couple of years ago to a recreational marijuana store in Colorado and had been eagerly awaiting the chance to do so in her home state.
"It's about time," she said.