Legal weed in Illinois: First day of recreational marijuana sales features long lines, happy customers

Dispensary agent Lea Oblena wears a temporary tattoo depicting a marijuana plant while helping a customer at Dispensary 33, 5001 N. Clark St., Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Chicago. The cannabis store opened for business to sell recreational weed at 6 a.m. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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By Robert McCoppin, Ally Marotti, Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas, Jessica Villagomez and Paige Fry Chicago Tribune (TNS)

CHICAGO — Some revelers in Chicago celebrated New Year’s Eve by waiting for midnight to arrive. But hours later, a different crowd of merrymakers was waiting to celebrate at 6 a.m. when they were able to make their first purchases after the state’s long-awaited introduction of legal marijuana. So far, the first day of legal recreational weed sales in Illinois has meant long lines, a few glitches — and lots of happy customers.

So far, 43 marijuana stores around the state have received all needed approvals to sell recreational weed. Six of them weren’t ready Jan. 1, held up by permitting issues, construction or other hurdles.

In downstate Harrisburg, people flooded the street, parking lot and fields around Thrive dispensary.

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The store opened at 10 a.m., but people started lining up hours before daybreak, said principal officer Gorgi Naumovski. The lines were relentless at Thrive’s location in Anna, too.

“We expected some sort of line, but I didn’t expect nonstop,” Naumovski said, from the Harrisburg location. “Good thing we’ve got five acres next to us. You’d think there was a flea market or an auction.”

The state announced only Tuesday that both of Thrive’s locations had been approved to sell recreational cannabis. That didn’t leave much time to prepare for the crush of people.

But the dispensaries were operating under the assumption that they would be approved, and had recently undergone renovations to help customers flow better through the store, Naumovski said. Though he added that he wished there was more flower available. Thrive has limited customers to buying two items, and may knock that limit down to just one item.

“We’re trying time stretch it but it just hasn’t let up,” he said. “Some people will be disappointed by the end of the day.”

Additionally, Naumovski said the dispensary has been battling all day a software system used by Thrive dispensaries at checkout and by the state to track marijuana sales.

Thrive has had to stop sales several times for 10- or 15-minute intervals to get things sorted out, causing delays in the checkout process.

Illinois Supply and Provisions, with Downstate locations in Collinsville and Springfield, also experienced the glitch with checkouts earlier in the day, but it was resolved shortly after 7 a.m., said Chris Stone, senior advisor at Ascend Illinois, which operates the dispensaries.

Both of the dispensaries were greeted with long lines Wednesday morning, as fewer shops were open downstate selling recreational weed. The Collinsville location, which is drawing customers from the St. Louis area, had served nearly 600 people by 11 a.m., Stone said.

“We’re the only dispensary for adult-use within 80 miles,” he said. The shops gave out doughnuts and coffee, and was planning to give pizza to people waiting in line for lunch. With temperatures nearing 50 degrees in both downstate locations, warming tents weren’t necessary, Stone said.

The lines, though long, were moving fast. Employees were using tablets to take orders for people while they wait in line, and once people get into the dispensary, they were in and out in about six minutes, Stone said.

The dispensaries implemented a buying limit on marijuana flowers Wednesday morning, and may need to adjust it further. “I’ll be interested to see how long it is before certain places run out of product,” Stone said. “I’ll also be interested to see what happens tomorrow and the next day.”

One of the first people to make a purchase at the Sunnyside dispensary was Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton. As part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, Stratton has been instrumental in efforts to help people with marijuana convictions by pardoning them as part of the legalization process.

Stratton was seen at the Clark Street dispensary shortly after sales became legal at 6 a.m. Wednesday. She told the Tribune she purchased gummies and customers and staff applauded the politician once her sale was complete.

On New Year’s Eve, Stratton stood alongside Pritzker when he announced he would be pardoning some 11,000 people convicted of low-level marijuana crimes.

“This is justice,” Stratton said Tuesday. “And this is what equity is all about, righting wrongs and leveling the playing field.”

The pardon means convictions involving less than 30 grams of marijuana will be automatically expunged.

Stratton’s office was closed for New Year’s Day, according to a telephone recording. An email to her team requesting comment was not immediately returned.

Some on social media were critical of Stratton’s decision, despite marijuana’s new legal status, apparently because of her role in state government. Others suggested she is helping to reduce the stigma associated with use of a product that is no longer against the law.

A steady stream of visitors drove up to the Sunnyside dispensary in an industrial park in suburban Buffalo Grove, anxiously awaiting their chance to be part of history.

Instead, a sign on the door notified them their dreams would be dashed. The store was not selling recreational marijuana, only medical cannabis.

Patrons were disappointed and angry that the store hadn’t announced that online.

A guard at the door said he had passed out some 600 flyers promoting the Sunnyside site in Elmwood Park, which does sell recreational cannabis.

Elman Ilyayev, 34, of Buffalo Grove, stood outside smoking a cigarette, frustrated by the confusion.

“I just wanted the experience and buy something legally,” he said. “I wanted to see the vibe.”

Several people said they would try other pot shops, but were dreading the long waits, which held at around three hours by midmorning at Rise Mundelein.

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