Mission Complicated

Legalization in Chicago gets off to a rocky start

It’s October of 2019, and to catalog the rollout of recreational marijuana legalization in Illinois, I’m at 8554 S. Commercial Ave. This is the site of 4Front Ventures’ newest project: the Mission South Shore dispensary, where I’m getting a tour and talking with the dispensary’s general manager about how Mission — the only marijuana dispensary on the Far South Side — plans to position itself in a new market, as well as how the dispensary process works right before legalization.

Located on the site of a former laundromat and flanked by auto supply stores, the building does not blend into its industrial surroundings. The exterior is painted from top to bottom in bold colors and linear graphics. Unlike most dispensaries on the West Coast, Mission doesn’t display its products in traditional large storefront windows. The only windows are higher than its door, making it impossible to see into the building from the ground. 

Policies around visiting a dispensary pre-legalization are so stringent that, in order to even be able to set foot on the property as a non–medical cardholder, I had to get special permission from the state five days before my visit. The spirit of Prohibition runs through every step of the process. Entering the dispensary requires you to hand your ID through an opening in what looks like bulletproof glass, fill out a form, and navigate through a series of four doors just to reach the sales floor—all while never seeing the product. Compared to its more retail-focused West Coast siblings, even the building’s bold colors can’t overcome the sterile, pharmacy-like atmosphere that pervades it. 

In terms of its philosophy though, Mission South Shore fits with plans to revitalize the area. Situated in South Chicago, not South Shore (as the name would indicate), the dispensary has been selling medical marijuana for more than two years, and is located on a street that literally has commerce in its name. 

South Commercial Avenue began as a shopping district for steel and dock workers, who worked in nearby mills abutting the Calumet River. Starting in the 1880s, workers flocked to the area, and by 1891 an “inventory of businesses along the corridor included 45 saloons, 40 clothing stores, 24 food stores, 9 hardware stores, 5 druggists,” and numerous miscellaneous ventures. The neighborhood’s population soared to over 55,000 in the 1950s, but by 1992, the last of the steel plants had closed and the area was sliding into rapid decline. The population in the area hit a record low in 2010, at just 31,198 residents.

A 2016 report from UIC’s Great Cities Institute recommended revitalizing the Commercial Avenue business district by adding an “anchor” that could draw people to the corridor from other neighborhoods, as well as the suburbs and Indiana. While the report — published before recreational legalization was politically on the table in Illinois — recommends a brewery, the dispensary seems to fill a similar role. As the only dispensary south of 57th, Mission is well-situated to attract customers from all across the South Side. These customers would also presumably patronize nearby businesses, thus providing an economic boost to the entire corridor.

Originally, this much-needed center of commerce was supposed to be located just east of the business district of Chatham, at the intersection of 87th and Greenwood. This is an area that has suffered a series of business closures in the past two years, losing two Targets, a Burlington Coat Factory, and multiple pharmacies. 

But a neighborhood watch group, the 8th Ward Accountability Coalition, publicly pressured Ald. Michelle Harris to oppose the permit for the dispensary. The group loudly expressed their fears about  putting a dispensary near a skating rink and a behavioral counseling center. The idea that locating dispensaries near places where youth gather might produce more underage users has been studied with varying conclusions drawn. But what does happen, according to a 2019 study from the Rand Corporation, is that a positive perception of the drug increases in 18 to 22-year-olds, who start to perceive the drug as more harmless. Either way, the zoning application for a medical-marijuana dispensary on 87th was abruptly withdrawn.

One wrinkle in this story is that this zoning application had been filed by Harborside Illinois Grown Medicine, a company run by a Black man, Lester Hollis. Ironically, part of the reason that Chicago doesn’t have a Black-run dispensary is that Chatham and Calumet Heights residents were worried about the dispensary’s impact on the neighborhood’s “quality of life”. In simpler terms: Black people opposed a Black-run dispensary.

But this initial community pushback, and aldermanic trepidation, didn’t stop with the move to the 10th Ward. 

“It was a struggle because people didn’t want us out here,” said Rick Armstrong, the dispensary’s manager since its opening (he has since moved on to a position in Arizona). “People were like ‘What do you mean?’ ‘My brother/sister is in jail for cannabis!’” They couldn’t believe that 4Front, Mission’s parent company, which had taken over the application process for Harborside after the fiasco in Chatham, was going to open a legal marijuana dispensary in the area. Two years later, however, they have a medical patient count of over eight hundred.

4Front was founded by Kris Krane and Josh Rogen in 2011, as a marijuana consulting company. It has helped open over sixty marijuana businesses to date. The company has maximized its vertical integration in the past few years and now has three branches: Brightleaf, which focuses on cultivation and production; Pure Ratios, which focuses on wellness; and Mission, which functions as the company’s retail arm, with operations in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Illinois. 

Mission’s sales floor is sparse. There is a limited selection of glassware and smoking paraphernalia on view, with prices ranging from $20 to $70. Nothing here is exotic or expensive. The product itself can only be seen on palm-sized cards, each displaying pictures of flowering cannabis and cannabis-derived products.

As I stare at a painting of a steelworker on the wall, and the large timeline of marijuana history that runs around  the space, Rick and I speak about equity in hiring. 

“African-Americans and Hispanics have been targets [of marijuana enforcement] for a long time.” Rick is Latinx, and he tells me that “we are in this position because of racism.” This position is one of fear.

To combat this fear, Mission’s brand emphasizes education. They hold events both in the dispensary meeting room, and at community spaces and libraries to get out the message that “we are here… let us help you…we have a safe, clean, space.” Rick excitedly relates the need for education around marijuana usage, especially for older users who might benefit from different ways of using medical marijuana. Throughout October, they are hosting community classes. 

“We just did a veterans’ event last week,” he tells me. “It wasn’t just a class. Just more of like, let’s talk about your struggles, let’s help you. Let’s meet other veterans in the community to have a good conversation.”

When I ask him if he is nervous about legalization, he doesn’t seem concerned. “Because we have the most regulation, we are the most prepared,” he tells me. He lets me know that “we’ve had our systems in place for a long time, so the transition will be smooth. It’s just a matter of adapting to the flows … packaging, procedure. We have that in place, we should be pretty good.“ 

I smile to myself at his confidence. 

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On the morning of January 1st, I return to Mission to report on Illinois’s historic first day of legalization. Mission’s staff is warm, welcoming, and dressed for the occasion—one even sports a marijuana-themed tie.

At 6am, the first sale is completed. By 6:15am, Mission has encountered its first problems. 

Mission’s internal system, LeafLogix, is not cooperating with BioTrackTHC, the program that the state uses to track every marijuana sale. Until the systems start cooperating, not a gram can be sold. It takes nearly two hours for the issue to be resolved. 

Over the course of that first day, the wait to purchase marijuana as an adult-use customer climbs to seven hours. Patrons complain loudly and often about the taxes, the wait times, and the cold. 

I return a few days later to find a very frazzled and curt staff. Mostly gone are the smiles and goodwill. Strong demand has whittled down the inventory to just two strains of flower. Most dispensaries in the Chicagoland area have either sold out of their recreational products or soon will. But Mission still has marijuana in stock, available to purchase in sizes up to one-quarter of an ounce.

The next week, when I return to check on the progress of things, uniformed security is now managing the ever-present line outside the building. Us customers queue outside like we are waiting for entry to a club. I wait, talking with patrons, for over an hour in the cold. Upon entry, some of the staff smiles have returned, but purchasing limits are sending some patrons leaving the store cursing loudly. 

Instead of being able to buy up to a ¼ of an ounce, which is seven-and-a-half grams, customers are only allowed two grams of flower per purchase (well below the Illinois legal maximum of thirty grams per purchase). Unlike some other dispensaries, including Sunnyside and Dispensary 33 on the North Side, Mission has failed to use its website or social media platforms to keep their customers updated on the rapidly changing policies and procedures. If you call Mission before you come, they are very nice over the phone. But the amount available for purchase may change before you arrive at the dispensary, or even while you are waiting in line. 

Halfway through January, I return again. I wait the now-customary hour for entry, but this time I am turned away at the door. A Mission representative explains they were told by a visiting state representative to  deny entry to people with IDs that don’t scan. I’ve had a passport card for over five years, a valid form of government-issued identification under the state law, but it rarely scans outside of an airport or government office. Once again, Mission has changed its procedures, but has failed to inform its customers on social media.

I am irritated by the inconvenience, and ask the representative to explain the changes. He goes red in the face, stammers, and asks another associate to step out of the booth to explain. I’m still steaming as I sit on a CTA bench outside and wait for the rest of my party to exit. And I’m not alone: the Google ratings  have plummeted over the past month, with customers citing the lack of professionalism, the lack of available products, and the complicated, club-like process for entry as points of concern. 

As the only dispensary south of 57th Street, Mission holds a monopoly on marijuana over much of the South Side. From a business and community standpoint, this provides it with a unique set of opportunities and challenges. 

Mission has the opportunity and the responsibility to set the tone for marijuana sales in Black Midwestern communities. They have the chance to create true equity, which, according to Everyday Feminism, “gives everyone what they need to be successful, not just equality which is treating everyone the same.” Mission is located in a community whose residents have been repeatedly arrested for doing exactly what they are now legally able to do. These folks are not in equal standing with their white North Side counterparts; they could use a leg up and a bit more compassion. The Far South Side needs a champion, but it remains to be seen whether 4Front is willing to carry that banner.

How Mission chooses to interact with their customer base, who they choose to hire, how they train their employees to be advocates in customer service, how they manage their inventory—all of this should and will continue to be scrutinized. It’s a lot of pressure, but they have chosen this location, at this time, and moreover certainly stand to make a handsome profit from it. 

Even though 4Front is not Black- or Latinx-owned, as Rick told me, “We are a corporation, but we are very proud of where we came from. To come to communities like here or Allentown, PA, one of the communities with the highest rate of opiate consumption. … We are trying to be very intentional, not [just] open[ing] on every corner. Just the areas that need it.”

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AV Benford is a Food & Land editor at the Weekly. She last wrote for the Weekly about Mission South Shore’s first day of sales.

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