And Just Like That, Marijuana Was Legal

For many of us who grew up in Illinois, the legalization of marijuana feels weird. Illinois banned cannabis in 1931, and in my little town, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we called it dope, as if it was a serious thing indeed. My kids make fun of me now for calling it that.

Governor Pritzker signed the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act June 25, 2019, making Illinois the 11th state (plus the District of Columbia) to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. It allows adult residents to buy up to 30 grams of cannabis, five grams of cannabis concentrate, and 500mg of THC-infused products, or any equivalent combination, in a single purchase. Someone from another state can buy half that amount but cannot legally transport it across state lines.

Thirty existing medical-marijuana dispensaries in Illinois were issued licenses to sell for recreational use, starting January 1. The first new dispensaries will be licensed in May. The Cannabis Act also expunges criminal records for 770,000 state residents who were caught in the failed war on drugs with an amount (an ounce or less) that is now legal.

As with lotteries and legalized casinos, Illinois has pinned its hopes on fixing its financial woes by taxing sales. “Illinois state government has an insatiable spending appetite driven by a 500% increase in pension costs since 2000,” the group Illinois Policy says. “Leaders have not balanced a state budget since 2001.”

Taxes on cannabis products in Illinois will be as high as 41%, which likely means the black market will thrive along with legal sales. I wrote here in 2018 about marijuana home delivery in Los Angeles; that year, California made about a third what it hoped from taxes.

The closest source to St. Louis for recreational marijuana is in Collinsville, Illinois. Collinsville city administrators expect at least a million dollars in city taxes, from up to $25 million in sales (the first year), at Illinois Supply and Provisions, formerly HCI Alternatives.

The dispensary is down a hilly, browned-out service road next to the highway, past a White Castle, an Arby’s, and a barbecue with the slogan “Smell That Smoke” built into its logo. A newer message on its marquee says: “We smoke and it’s always been legal.”

Outside the dispensary, a one-story building still labeled HCI, hundreds stood in line in winter gear for their turn to buy. It was 27 degrees, with freezing rain and snow expected. Local schools had closed, just in case, and snow plows were throwing salt. The cold tightened your face skin and in time caused a sinus headache.

Metal barricades and snow fencing kept the line orderly. A DJ stood outside under a pop-up shelter, with his Apple laptop and sound gear, playing Steppenwolf (“Why don’t you come with me little girl / On a magic carpet ride”). He wore Carhartt pants and a heavy coat but bounced his leg to stay warm in the high wind.

More would-be customers drove past, looking for a place to park. Next door was the Illinois State Police Regional Headquarters Complex, and two police cars sat nose-to-nose blocking the entrance to their lot.

In line, people were discussing the wait but were in good spirits. One said the line had been longer, back to the corner, the other day. He checked Facebook and said it was still an hour-and-a-half.

The man in front of me was in his 50s, with a vigorous beard and thick safety glasses. He had come from Missouri. He said he was layered-up, with a t-shirt, a shirt, another shirt, a vest, a stocking cap, and his Harley Davidson coat with blue flames up the hood. He told me he got hit on his bike when he was young, by a drunk driver. It killed him but they brought him back. He said as a result he would rather be riding behind somebody who was a little high than somebody who had had a few drinks. The accident broke his neck, his back, his ribs, and crushed his legs—half his body was crushed. He could get his medical marijuana card if he wanted to but never had. This dispensary changed everything.

“It’s not like buying from your buddy in the neighborhood,” he said.

My man said he liked smoke, not edibles. He had not had much luck with those, because his stomach was ruined. He had tried some oil but could not inhale all the way; it burned up his lungs and throat. He worried about people being killed by it.

This was his first visit to the Collinsville dispensary, but he had been to ones in Colorado many times, when passing through on his bike. Since they had one “every five blocks,” the wait was never more than 10 minutes. The one in Pueblo was his favorite because it had fields of weed next to the store, and you could know their processes.

As I drove away, the line moved 10 feet and stopped again. I called my friend in LA to tell him I did not wait in the bitter cold to report the inside of the dispensary. He laughed; he gets his delivered. We imagined that, inside the building, women carried trays around their necks, like in old movies, with packs of joints and CBD gummies. You went down a buffet line with a tray and helped yourself with tongs to indica and sativa strains from foreign mountainsides, and a man at the concentrate station near the end held a ladle and asked, “Dope oil on top?”

In reality, Illinois Supply and Provisions hopes to be cleared to offer free samples in the store soon and even to have an “on-site consumption lounge.” The state police might not like that; White Castle will.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.