Credit: Mari Cohen

“Somebody’s got weed on them—I can smell it. It’s giving me hope,” joked a young white woman in a pink sweatshirt and pink hat from her place in the middle of the long, winding line in a nondescript room that served as the waiting space for Sunnyside Dispensary in Lakeview. While I saw precious little actual weed during my trip to the dispensary on Sunday—except for the brief moments when marijuana products passed from employers’ hands into customers’ Sunnyside-branded plastic bags—hope was everywhere. Hope that the line would speed up; that a preferred product wouldn’t run out; that the up to seven-hour wait to shop at the dispensary in one of the first days of legalized recreational marijuana would be worth it.

The room, which the dispensary leased for the first few days of January in order to house soon-to-be shoppers, was located just down Clark from Sunnyside itself, which is within shouting distance from Wrigley Field. The dispensary’s windowless exterior is painted entirely bright orange, the color of Sunnyside’s brand, making it pop against the surrounding Clark Street facades. Around 2:30 PM, two security guards in bright lime green vests had the task of dashing hopes of interested shoppers seeking a short line. (Medical shoppers, however, were allowed to enter immediately.) Every few minutes, a handful of people walked up or pulled over in cars to ask if the dispensary was open; the guards responded with the address of the waiting room and a warning that the wait would be at least half a day long. That fact was commonly greeted with laughter: “We’ll be back in a couple months,” one middle-aged white man joked before walking away. Meanwhile, a Black woman emerged from the dispensary door clutching her Sunnyside bag, shouting “I feel like a winner!”

For those who opted to begin the long wait down the street, Sunnyside staff seemed determined to mitigate the pain of the line-waiting experience as much as possible. Staff swept through the crowd, offering free snacks, water, lighters, stainless steel water bottles, and Sunnyside-branded tote bags. I heard rumors that pizza and hot dogs had been served earlier in the day. Pop and dance music blared from a wireless speaker. At one point, a staff member approached one section of the line and offered a free weed grinder to whoever had come from the farthest away; the winning man had driven two hours from the south suburbs. (He declined to give his name, since he’s about to start his tenure as a medical resident and is taking advantage of the period in between drug tests, but told me he had come out because, “You gotta try stuff while it’s hot, while it’s new.” He and his friend had unsuccessfully tried getting into two dispensaries in previous days before landing in line at Sunnyside.)

“It’s as good as a line’s going to get,” said an enthusiastic Airpods-sporting Wicker Park resident named Nick, who had been waiting for two hours by the time we spoke. He was paying for parking while he waited, he said, so he was “stoked” about the free stuff. He planned to buy flower, disposable cartridges and pens, and pre-rolled joints. “It’s pretty sweet to be in a room full of Chicagoans that want to smoke pot and buy pot, and it’s legal and we can all talk about it, so it’s a good time.”

And apparently, that good time had been, so far, mostly unspoiled by drama. Scotty Rose, a security guard with a shaved head and intense manner working for Security Chicago, one of several security firms hired by Sunnyside, said that guards hadn’t yet had to handcuff anyone. “We’re trying to keep that no-cuff number,” he told me. (Security Chicago is owned by the son of Walsh Security firm owner Thomas Walsh Sr., a CPD officer who once assaulted a Black security guard while off-duty and called him the N-word.) Two days ago, they had had to kick out one person who was talking smack to a high-level Sunnyside employee, but that was the only incident, Rose said. Our chat was interrupted by a customer who wanted to know if the online menu was kept up to date based on changes in inventory. Rose—a military reserves member who told me, “I really enjoy protecting people”—said that yes, it was. “See all the shit that I know that I should not know?” he joked to me after the customer walked away.

Sunnyside is the retail brand of national cannabis-producing company Cresco Labs; outside of the city, it operates dispensaries in two suburbs as well as in Rockford and Champaign, and has two medical-only locations in New York. The brand is officially styled Sunnyside*, asterisk included, which looks picturesque on the front of the building but, in paragraphs, makes the name seem to be always carrying some mysterious caveat. The brand has a crisp, start-up like aesthetic—its slogan is “A new kind of cannabis shop.” The signature splashy orange is everywhere, from the walls in the dispensary to the signs in the waiting room reminding people that cannabis is still illegal on a federal level. This kind of branding suggests a tech-savvy efficiency, which was also evident in Sunnyside’s process for shepherding its massive crowds. In the waiting room, shoppers scrolled through the menu on their phones and filled out their orders on paper forms, which were collected by Sunnyside staff and entered into the system. In line, security guards reminded people to have the proper identification ready and cash on hand. When space opened up in the dispensary, guards walked batches of 20 people down the block, where they formed another line right outside the Sunnyside door. Eventually, they were led into an anteroom, where staff checked their documents, and then into the dispensary itself, where they waited in yet another line for the counter.

Online, pictures suggest that Sunnyside’s dispensaries have a sleek and airy Apple-store-like look—stock photos show customers walking around and taking in various displays of cannabis products—but in reality, the Lakeview location is small and functional. If not for the orange walls, signs reminding customers not to smoke and drive, and glass cases in the counter showing off cannabis hard candy—the latter mostly obscured from view by the throngs of customers—you would be forgiven for mistaking the room for a bank or DMV. At the register, Sunnyside staff moved quickly to grab customers’ orders from a locker behind the counter and exchange them for wads of cash. There was room in the process, however, for personalized interaction: I watched a staff member advise a customer on his disposable pen options and the process for applying for a medical license.

Sunnyside’s cheery branding pushes a sense of optimism in the future of Illinois’s recreational cannabis industry. Plenty of optimism is justified: state lawmakers have made racial equity a priority in crafting the recreational marijuana program and have paved the way for expunging thousands of low-level marijuana convictions. The millions of tax dollars collected from eager dispensary users will provide the state with needed revenue (nearly $11 million in just the first few days); some will even fund programs in communities affected in the War of Drugs. On a personal level, some people buying cannabis are hopeful about how it might transform their lives. A woman who gave her name as Sumaya told me that she’s an alcoholic and is hoping that smoking will help her drink less. “Alcohol will kill you,” she said. “It almost killed me in 2018. But marijuana doesn’t kill you.” New friends she’d made in line had helped her fill out her order form for pre-rolled joints with the harlequin strain, known for its high CBD levels that provide anxiety relief without overwhelming intoxication.

And, yet, the asterisk. While the state is supposed to be approving more applications from dispensary owners from communities affected by the War on Drugs in the future, the first 11 dispensaries selling recreational cannabis in the city are all white-owned; all but two are on the north side. It’s jarring to see a giant crowd—diverse overall, but still majority white—line up in Lakeview to buy legal weed from a start-up, with the full protection of security firms run by cops, while Chicago police officers are still arresting and charging Black and Brown men for low-level cannabis charges that are now eligible for expungement. CPD has announced its intention to pivot to targeting illegal weed sales, and given their track record, it’s likely that, once again, marijuana use in Black and Brown communities will be disproportionately policed. As if to drive the point home, one of the security guards at Sunnyside’s door wore a Blue Lives Matter symbol on his knit black hat.

One thing that’s clear is that Sunnyside’s “new kind of cannabis shop” is unlikely to completely displace the old. Yes, the dispensary’s success shows that thousands of people in and around Chicago are willing to stand in long lines and pay high taxes in order for a chance to purchase weed legally. There are certain upsides to using a dispensary: several people I talked to said they liked having confidence in the drug’s quality and safety and they enjoyed the expansive menu. “At home, you just take what you can get. Now I get a choice,” said Karah M., who had driven all the way from Milwaukee to buy edibles and joints.

But that doesn’t mean that dispensary users will be fully giving up their existing methods of buying weed. David, from Rogers Park, said that he had arrived at 9 AM to line up to buy from Sunnyside’s collection of edibles and vapes, but that he wasn’t interested in purchasing their flower. “The prices are kind of outrageous right now,” he said. (Flower sells for $19.56 a gram.) “I’m still gonna stick with my regular guy.” One buyer, almost to Sunnyside’s door at the end of her long wait, echoed the sentiment: “I’ll still be supporting my local Chicago weed seller,” she said with a laugh. Her friend, a UW Madison student, agreed: “I have dabs sitting on my table at home. This is just for the experience.”  v