Inside a west suburban bungalow-style home, Alejandra* sits at a small table in her newly remodeled kitchen and asks me if it’s OK if she smokes during our interview. I say yes. She hops off the stool and makes her way behind the counter, pulling out a rolling tray from an old shoebox.
It’s past noon on a Wednesday in early December, and Alejandra’s still riding off the high of a wild weekend. She was at a pop-up featuring everything from cannabis-infused empanadas to body care products. The three-and-a-half-hour long event was billed as a festival for the canna-curious and the canna-novice, the perfect way to close out Thanksgiving week.
This was a private party, deemed “referral only.” That means the burden of proof in the who-knows-who game rests on the vendors and organizers—tickets could only be purchased with the organizers’ final approval.
By the night’s end, Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka made a guest appearance, weaving in and out of an exclusive crowd. And I was supposed to be Alejandra’s plus-one.
She apologizes that we weren’t able to meet. The garden apartment she rents in Pilsen, she says, is built like a fortress. Not only does it cancel out her cell service, but she also keeps her windows covered for additional protection of herself and her business. I tell her I caught a whiff of baked goods outside her building, but I couldn’t find her. She laughs, her smile disappearing behind a thick cloud of white smoke.
On the countertop, there’s a holiday tray stacked with leftover samples of her edibles, including her prized bite-size brownie, the dessert that inspired her to leave her full-time paralegal job and leap into Chicago’s cannabis industry. This is the first time I’ve seen Alejandra’s treats outside of Instagram. Her infused mini coquitos, Puerto Rican eggnog cookies—a nod to her roots—and rainbow-colored gummy bears outline the rest of her red plate.
Alejandra is Latina, and in an industry dominated largely by wealthy white men, she stands out. While much of the conversation on cannabis in Illinois has focused on the new law (on January 1, 2020, recreational marijuana will be legalized), there’s this world that already exists where people like Alejandra are able to play, experiment, and flourish. It’s a world protected by private accounts, passwords, and invitations. Call it what you will: the underground, the black market. It’s a place where anyone, not just those with money, can blossom and feel a sense of community.
Getting to this point has been an exercise in building trust.
I visited Alejandra twice before at her makeshift Pilsen bakery during Thanksgiving week, but didn’t actually meet her. Both times, I was left standing in front of a three-story apartment on a deserted street, scrolling through my texts to check and double-check the address. There’s no doorbell, and Alejandra’s name didn’t match any of the ones on the mailboxes.
There’s no visible address on her building, but a mailman, who was en route, reassured me that I was at the right place. I knocked, but there was no answer. I waited, then knocked again and called her name. But I stopped, fearing I’d draw unwanted attention to her.
Alejandra had warned me that her phone was “acting hella crazy” lately, but she posted a few pictures on her Insta-story shortly before our scheduled interview. I wondered if she saw any of my calls and texts. I wondered if this was more than a coincidence or bad timing. Maybe she didn’t want to be a part of this story.
Because of the buzz surrounding legalized recreational marijuana, the way we talk about cannabis is changing. It’s forced us as a society to restructure the way we govern, police, and think about cannabis. This is due in part to the fact that capitalism has now carved out room for cannabis, and there’s promise of a billion-dollar revenue stream if all goes well.
But those in Alejandra’s position have a lot to lose and a lot at stake. Alejandra is a single mom of three, and her day-to-day fears range from robbery to run-ins with the law.
An entrepreneur in the black market, Alejandra has to be selective of her clientele. From securing her own cannabis flower from a grower to guarding her recipes and making deliveries, the risk gets higher with every move. While her social media profile is public, she screens her followers and blocks anyone under 21.
“This is such an industry, where it’s like, ‘who do you know?'” she says. “It really has to be like that. I’ve had situations where I have to filter people. I had some guy, for example, he messaged me on Instagram. He has no pictures on his Instagram. Never posted, and he’s following like four people. I don’t know who that is.”
At the pop-up, Alejandra experienced her first sellout. A man purchased ten bags of her homemade gummy bears, her entire stock that night. Sold at $30 a pack, each one had ten individual gummies inside, each dosed with 100 milligrams of THC. Edible products, including those that come in multiple servings, cannot contain more than 100 milligrams, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Alejandra’s excitement quickly turned into skepticism. “I don’t know if he’s going to sell them,” she says, adding she once had a customer buy her gummies and place his own labels on them.
Maria,* another cannabis homecook with a penchant for making infused Latin food, echoed Alejandra. In fact, at the end of our interview, Maria told me that she scanned my Instagram beforehand. The deciding factor? She says I “looked chill” and she didn’t think I’d rob her.
This is what happens when you live in this “gray area,” Alejandra says. You hope for the best, expect the worst. Entrepreneurs like Alejandra and Maria, who thrive in the black market, must navigate through their fear, mistrust, and uncertainties by constantly rewriting their own rules of safety. But, the higher the risk, the greater the reward.
For many, the underground proves to be the safest place to prosper. Leila* is a yoga instructor, who has embraced cannabis in her own holistic practice and leads cannabis-friendly classes. Jessica* is a Black artist who hosts canna-paint parties with her best friend, Jackie.*
On average, their events pull in at least 15 guests, who are encouraged to bring their own cannabis, snacks, and water. But just because it’s not officially legal doesn’t mean there’s not a code of conduct enforced at these gatherings.
Leila, Jessica, and Jackie outline the details: guests need to come at a certain time before the doors are locked to prevent unwanted guests from coming in. Leila often checks in with her yogis to ask them how high they are and if this is the first time they’ve gotten high or been around cannabis. She also limits their use of social media; guests are not allowed to livestream or post photos of their experience and tag her.
At these events, respect and courtesy are expected. And participants aren’t required to smoke cannabis. They can just come to do yoga or paint. It’s about “giving the power back to the person and the authority back to that person,” Leila says of these guidelines, so “that they’re capable of making choices.”
As women of color, this particular group makes up a small—but growing—percentage of business owners in the cannabis industry. In 2017, Marijuana Business Daily reported that 73 percent of cannabis executives were men and 81 percent were white. In November, the city held its first recreational marijuana lottery, further pulling back the curtain on the industry’s lack of diversity.
“When you saw who the people were in the room at the time, it was a majority of just older white males,” Maria says. “There wasn’t any females in the group. There wasn’t any person of color in the group, and that’s something that to me is very disheartening.”
On the surface, the rise of the cannabis industry in Illinois feels like the Wild West, where things look like they’re up for grabs. But, like the underground, this budding legal market is invite-only. The lottery, for example, allowed existing medical marijuana dispensaries to choose a secondary site for recreational sales.
By May 1, 2020, up to 75 adult-use dispensary licenses will be issued, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. And, while these applications appear to be open for everyone, the $5,000 nonrefundable application fee can be a barrier. There are restoration fund grants, which are geared toward women and people of color, to alleviate the industry’s hefty costs, but it all seems intangible for self-starters.
This is just for dispensaries. For Alejandra and Maria, who dream of opening their own cannabis cafes with freshly made treats and meals, the rules are still being pieced together. And the new state law has yet to address how Leila, Jessica, and Jackie can combine recreational activities and recreational marijuana. There are a lot of steps to climb before they can claim their place in the Green Rush, which is why they’ve chosen to stay under the radar.
“I want to be able to see that people like me can open up a cafe,” Maria says. “That I don’t have to wait for this lottery system that is consuming, just cost-wise alone. I already know people that have fallen for licensing and saying that they’ve wasted anywhere from like $50,000 and up to just get started. The zoning board can still tell you no, at the end of the day, and it’s just like to go through all that process to be told no, it’s just, it’s disheartening.”
I ask Alejandra and Maria why they entered the business in the first place. They each laugh, as they think back to their first edibles, the classic brownie. One of the reasons Alejandra says she started baking edibles was because she kept finding “old-ass brownies” that tasted like they were missing key ingredients.
It’s the reason why they insist on making their products from scratch. As consumers, Alejandra and Maria have both bought edibles from sellers who weren’t keen on sharing their ingredients or the type of cannabis strains used. They say sellers are responsible for educating their customers and need to be transparent about their infused food, as some people might have dietary restrictions or may have never consumed cannabis before.
“That’s why I have to trust and know what I’m doing, too, so I can tell the people that I’m dealing with and I have a connection with. They’re trusting me,” Alejandra says, adding that her products come with a set of instructions and an emphasis on portion control.
Two years in, Alejandra and Maria have built a clientele that includes medical professionals and patients, and both thought they could get their foot in the door by pairing up with larger corporations. Alejandra and Maria, who are both regular cannabis users, began this venture to promote the benefits of medical marijuana. Maria started making edibles to provide another alternative for her grandmother, who had failed back syndrome and arthritis. Though she was prescribed a “laundry list of medications,” her grandmother still experienced some pain and developed insomnia, Maria says.
Maria says attending cannabis fairs to try and get her products on the shelves left a “sour [taste] in my mouth. In a medical space, it’s supposed to be patients over profit, right? For them, it’s just like, ‘Well, what can I do for minimal costs, and what can I mass produce?'”
That mentality, alone, conflicts with Maria’s mission. Her menu—which includes an impressive collection of infused savory dishes inspired by her Bolivian heritage—deviates from the state’s requirements. In order to sell edibles and infused products legally, they have to be tested in state-regulated labs, which makes shelf life a major priority.
“I feel like we’re literally in that time when we’re watching all the trial and error,” Maria says. “It’s interesting to see how we are going to continue to protect everyone in this space, as it continues to grow, because at some point, it’s kind of scary to think about. Sometimes, you grow to the point where you can’t control it anymore, and you got to find a way to still protect the community.”
When I meet with Leila, she brings me to the Wing Chicago, a luxurious co-working space tucked in the heart of the West Fulton Market. Headquartered in New York, The Wing, which was founded in 2016, was created to promote, uplift and build a network of a “diverse community” of women. Leila, who lives in the northeast suburbs, comes here sometimes to work.
We hunt for an open seat in an Instagrammable landscape packed with perfectly mix-matched furniture and cozy conference rooms. Leila tells me she has a free limited membership but no longer plans to work here after her trial is over. A monthly membership costs $185 with an annual commitment—yet another financial barrier to being part of a community on the up-and-up.
We make our way to a comfy royal blue couch, and Leila starts to unpack the reasons she started her yoga classes. In the last couple of years, Leila lost both of her parents to cancer, shifting her role from big sister to the head of the household.
To her, venturing into the cannabis industry is not only a means of survival, but it’s about leaving behind a legacy. Leila, who has a background in counseling, wants to “be an empire” and make her classes, which she calls “alternative spaces of healing,” accessible to people across the U.S.—and she wants to do all of this without selling out.
The expectations that come with the legalization of recreational marijuana are slowly unraveling into hurdles of harsh realities. At the Wing, Leila sits on the edge of her cushion and tries to peer out the window, which overlooks a quiet city and an empty highway.
“As the law comes in, in January, I’m worried about all the people that are going to be left behind. People will be impacted, families will be impacted, communities will be impacted, individuals will be impacted,” she says. “I feel a lot of pressure to maintain—what, this has been underground for two years—to maintain the community, to maintain this as an intimate experience.” v
*Names have been changed