Cannabis in Denver 1

Legal cannabis competes with black market

By Steven Porter

Buying marijuana legally isn’t as easy in Illinois as it is in certain other states, but the regulatory hoops aren’t stopping consumers.

Richard Park is a retail consultant for Dispensary 33 in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, the city’s first shop to sell marijuana under the Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program which took effect last fall. He said patients prefer to buy legal weed because it offers peace of mind.

“You know what you’re getting from a dispensary,” Park said. “You know the lab results. You know the potency.”

You also get higher quality for the same price, he said.

An eighth of an ounce costs about $60 at Dispensary 33, which is roughly equivalent to street prices for high-grade marijuana on the black market, Park said, noting that street-price estimates available online are wildly inaccurate.

In order to legally purchase cannabis in Illinois, patients must be diagnosed with any of 39 pre-approved “debilitating medical conditions” identified by the legislature — they include cancer, glaucoma, and HIV/AIDS — then obtain special written permission from a doctor, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

But if a goal in legalizing pot is to undermine illegal supply chains, then Illinois needs to continue broadening access to the legal stuff, Park argued.

Across town at a second dispensary, Modern Cannabis, in Logan Square, the front door remains locked during business hours. A sign next to the door bell at the store’s nondescript entrance on Milwaukee Avenue tells visitors they won’t be allowed inside unless they’re registered with the state as patients or caregivers.

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Modern Cannabis in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood has a sign next to the door bell at its Milwaukee Avenue entrance warning visitors that they won’t be allowed inside unless they’re registered with the state as patients or caregivers. (Steven Porter/MEDILL)

This limited access policy could serve as an apt metaphor for the state’s laws in comparison to others with liberalized weed restrictions.

In Colorado, by contrast, where it’s legal to buy and use marijuana recreationally, consumers need only be at least 21 years old with a photo ID to purchase weed.

Above the doorway to Lodo Wellness Center, the first dispensary in Denver to offer legal weed for recreational purposes, a light-up “Open” sign welcomes visitors inside. Members of the general public are free to inspect a portion of the store’s grow operation through a window and survey a menu of cannabis products for sale.

An LCD screen inside the well-lit retail space advertises $60 as the regular price for eighth-ounce portions.

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Lodo Wellness Center in Denver sells a variety of cannabis products, including edibles, for medicinal and recreational purposes. (Steven Porter/MEDILL)

This budding market for legal cannabis, which includes edible and drinkable products, has successfully begun chipping away at the illicit market, according to some experts.

“If you go to Colorado, you can look at how the cartels are being out-competed. They’re being pretty solidly beaten, actually, by the legal business,” Tom Wainwright, author of Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, said during a recent speech hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Although weed pedaled by cartels is cheaper in some cases, it’s also weaker. Marijuana on the street typically has an active-chemical concentration of about 6 percent, while dispensaries offer concentrations of about 18 percent, Wainwright said.

Historically, the U.S. government and its allies have had a hard time halting marijuana and other drugs being smuggled from Central and South America, but there’s a more effective way, Wainwright argued.

“The place where we’ve really gone wrong is in focusing on the supply side of this business, rather than the demand side,” he said. “Like any business, it has those two halves, and if you look at what governments have done in the past decades, there’s been a very heavy emphasis on interrupting supply.”

Park, who helped open a dispensary in Colorado prior to his work with Dispensary 33, said good service and well-regulated products are making the slow shift toward legal weed a permanent one.

“We’ve never lost a customer back to the street,” Park said.

Photo at top: Cannabis plants growing inside Lodo Wellness Center, the first dispensary in Denver to offer legal weed for recreational purposes, are available for inspection by shoppers. (Steven Porter/MEDILL)