People from Chicago—and beyond—wait in line for South Chicago's Mission South Shore Dispensary to open on the morning of New Year's Day. (Photo by AV Benford)

January 1, 5:30am. The first day of legal recreational sales in the state of Illinois. The night is sheer black at this hour, but South Commercial Avenue between 85th and 86th is unusually bright, lit by a row of large floodlights on the side of the Mission South Shore dispensary—now selling both medicinal and recreational cannabis. 

This is by far the earliest party I’ve ever been to. The line runs the length of the building, wraps the parking lot, spills out onto the sidewalk and threatens to cross the street. The line grows and shifts throughout the morning, as if it were a metaphor for this process as a whole, and the management changes. More staff is added, making the entire operation—handing out new client forms, collecting those forms back, processing IDs—move a little quicker.  Some of the staff members are dressed for the occasion, celebrating with dapper bow ties, trilbies with navy blue trim, wingtips. One even has on an all-green suit and marijuana-themed tie. Green confetti covers the damp ground.

At 6am, Mission Dispensary celebrated the first sale of legal recreational marijuana on the Far South Side of Chicago. The purchaser, a long-time advocate of marijuana reform, was Edie Moore, a founding board member and executive director of Chicago NORML, a local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. When I asked her how she felt, holding her purchase after so many years of fighting for this change, she said that she “didn’t feel it until it was happening,” acknowledging that “this is a big deal” and that she was “honored to be tapped” to be the first one to buy.

Garrin Hudson is one of Mission’s patient consultants, a blonde 21-year-old with a chin beard, an earring, and a warm and welcoming demeanor. He has worked for Mission for about six months. In previous years, states like Colorado had product shortages on the first day of recreational sales or soon after because of the high volume of sales. When I asked Garrin what he thought would run out on the recreational menu first, he listed flower, edibles, and carts (cartridges/vapes), in that order. (When I checked back in a few days, it was actually edibles that sold out first. Mission was one of the last dispensaries still selling recreational flower after the first few days of sales.)

As the budtender stepped away to assist a woman with an Indiana ID in her hand, I listened in to a group of three men: Bryan Hopkins, 27, of Calumet City, Chris Myers, 29, of Hyde Park, and Joseph Weaver, 24, of Brentwood. In a very relaxed manner, they debated the efficacy of different strains, while smiling and tapping away at one of the many tablet kiosks scattered around Mission’s sales floor. The tablets are directly connected to inventory, providing real-time updates on availability. 

The buying process has a food service familiarity to it: you place your order, either via tablet or online (though they are currently not accepting online orders), and a ticket is generated in the back for a runner who grabs your items. While your order is being prepared, you hop in another line to make your payment. If things are running smoothly, then by the time you reach the friendly budtender (who re-checks your ID, adds taxes, and accepts your payment), your order is ready.

But it’s day one. And no, the line is not moving swiftly. In fact, for forty-five minutes, the line is not moving at all. But it wouldn’t be the first day without a few hiccups; in this case, it’s a software conflict. The program that the state uses to track every single gram of marijuana sold, BioTrackTHC, is not cooperating with LeafLogix, the system Mission uses internally. Until the systems update and agree, not a single gram can leave the store. By 8am, the issue has been resolved and people are giddy with their purchases. Grown people, free of worry and stigma, are smiling from ear to ear and literally skipping from the dispensary. Some still feed the need to flip up their hoods and turn down their heads as they leave Mission’s doors, but most appear full of pure joy. 

I first visited Mission in October to profile the place pre-recreational legalization. Since then, the staff has more than tripled, from fewer than ten to over thirty. White, Black, Latin, and Asian budtenders. Queer budtenders. Budtenders closer to twenty-one years in age and those who appear old enough to have a 21-year-old. 

At Mission, medical patients have priority, and as one lady sits comfortably on a couch near the front of the sales floor, she agrees to answer a few questions while her order is prepared. She has been coming to Mission for about a year, and wears a tight-fitting skull cap with neatly pressed sweats and a colorful cane. She tells me about Mission’s “great discounts” for veterans and their hardship program. She’s a Marine Corps veteran with Gulf War syndrome, which affects her heart, lungs, and nervous system, in addition to causing chronic pain. She used to have to take eight different pills, and “none of them [were] working,”  she said. She generally researches her purchases at home and then orders online, because “not every flower suits every need.” She sees a different budtender each time she comes. She won’t tell me what her favorite strain of flower is—for fear that it will sell out quickly—but her second favorite is Cresco’s Katsu Bubba Kush Shake, which sells for $60 on the medical menu.  

Mission’s South Shore dispensary (despite the name, it’s actually in South Chicago) is easily accessible for Indiana residents, and I saw a number of them in line with their unmistakable pink IDs. But the person I met from the furthest away was from Kenai, Alaska. Rocking a gray Ninja Turtles hoodie and a red chest-length beard, the man was on a cross-continental road trip with his dog. So far he’d driven from Alaska, through Canada, and into Washington State. He’d then headed east, visiting family and friends and hitting every state where weed is legal in the U.S. Today, he was in Illinois, but he planned to head for Michigan by nightfall. I asked about the favorite dispensary he’d visited along the way, and he told me of one out West completely made out of glass, natural wood, and fallen trees. 

Also on hand to revel in the glory of their labor, along with grateful state residents, were three of the four “Marijuana Moms,” the female lawmakers who chose to long ago blaze a trail for legalization: State Senator Heather Steans and State Representatives Kelly Cassidyand Jehan Gordon-Booth. The fourth, former State Senator Toi Hutchinson, was only present in spirit—as Illinois’s new “cannabis czar,” Hutchinson was responsible for overseeing the rollout of cannabis sales across the state. When I spoke with Gordon-Booth about why she had to be here for this event, she spoke about being “out experiencing who’s here, what’s the vibe.” She didn’t want to hear about the event on social media, she said. She wanted to be “on the ground, so [she] could feel it for [herself].”

Before leaving, I decided to use the cash in my pocket to take the plunge myself and buy a legal gram. I wanted to know what it was like to legally do what my friends have been arrested for time and again. I took my time and studied the tablet, asking a ridiculous amount of questions. Because I could. Because for the first time I knew the provenance and the terroir, the content and the terpenes. It didn’t require jumping in some dude’s car at 10pm when he finally remembered to deliver your order. It didn’t require hitting a guy up and waiting for hours for him to hit you back after work or after the gym. It didn’t require traveling for over an hour each way just to deal with someone reputable. For $15 ($17.50 with tax), I purchased a gram of The Great Chicago Fire in flower form, which equates to about $55 for 1/8 oz. On January 1 in the state of Illinois, I walked into a store, paid not that much more than if I were to make this purchase on the street, and walked out into the morning sun.

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AV Benford is a Food & Land editor at the Weekly. She last wrote for the Weekly about Chicago State’s Cannabis Industry Expo.

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