Recreational marijuana goes on sale Jan. 1 in Illinois. Dispensaries are already getting ready.

Recreational marijuana is just a signature away from being legal in Illinois, and dispensaries are staffing up, remodeling, and wasting no time preparing for new foot traffic.

Illinois lawmakers approved a bill Friday that, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s promised signature, will allow the state’s 55 medical dispensaries to apply to sell recreational marijuana. Additionally, the dispensaries can apply to open a second location. That means more than 100 dispensaries could be selling marijuana by the beginning of next year.

Dispensaries are renovating their spaces and streamlining their processes to serve more customers.

At the same time, dispensaries must prepare for a growing number of Illinois medical cannabis patients.

Dispensary 33 in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood got a glimpse of what recreational sales volume could be like on April 20, when a festival celebrating marijuana was held outside the dispensary and patients flocked to the store for deals.

“We’re going to have to staff up because now you’re going to have to perform like 4/20 almost every day,” said general manager Paul Lee. “This is a different game. This is recreational. … Now you’re including everybody.”

Mission Chicago South Shore Medical Marijuana Dispensary, one of the few dispensaries on the South Side, is building a classroom to be used for marijuana education, adding registers and planning to double employee count to 20 by year’s end, said general manager Rick Armstrong. It’s also changing the shop’s setup to be more self-serve, arranging the products by type — topicals in one section, edibles in another. Customers will come in and see cards describing each product, like in a wine shop, and take that card up to the register for checkout.

Consultants will be taking orders on iPads, or customers can preorder online. All the different shopping methods will help Mission control the flow of customers, Armstrong said. It’s also changing its exterior look.

“As we speak, we’re painting a mural on the outside of our building,” Armstrong said. “We’re branding so people can see we are a dispensary.”

Dispensary 33 is also redoing its interior to make room for displaying more cannabis products, and is looking for space to open a second location. Marijuana company Ascend Illinois has dispensaries in Springfield and Collinsville, and plans to apply to open two more under the upcoming law, said CEO Chris Stone.

“We’ve located specific sites that we will be adding a recreational license to and looking to open up on Jan. 1 when it becomes legal,” he said.

Ascend Illinois employs 54 people between its two dispensaries, and Stone said he expects that to grow. The company has already been working to staff up and expand the inside of its facilities in anticipation of growth in the medical cannabis program that is not expected to slow down.

Lawmakers approved a bill Sunday that would make the state’s medical marijuana program permanent and expand it. The measure, which still awaits Pritzker’s signature, would add broader qualifying conditions such as chronic pain, autism and irritable bowel syndrome. Advocates have been working for years to expand the state’s medical program past its previous 40 or so qualifying conditions.

“It feels as though we finally delivered on the promise to the patients,” said Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, sponsor of the legislation. “I don’t know how else to say it without getting emotional.”

The program has added more than 12,500 patients since February, when the state dropped fingerprint and background check requirements for patients, allowed people prescribed opioids to access medical marijuana, and started granting provisional access while medical card applications are reviewed.

Almost 67,000 patients were enrolled in the program at the state’s last count in early May. At maturity, medical cannabis programs typically reach about 1 to 2 percent of a state’s population. In Illinois, that’s 128,000 to 256,000 people. With chronic pain and additional conditions, some expect that could increase by additional percentage points.

The recreational marijuana bill would ensure that patients enrolled in Illinois’ medical cannabis program take priority over recreational customers if there is ever a shortage of pot products.

After recreational marijuana goes on sale at the medical dispensaries and their second locations, the state can eventually license nearly 200 additional stores and assess demand from there.


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