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Cannabis smoking lounges off to successful start in Illinois

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CHICAGO — Cannabis smoking lounges, slow to open in Illinois since marijuana was legalized last year, are starting to get off the ground, as two have opened and more are planned across the state.

In addition to bring-your-own marijuana consumption sites operating in DeKalb and Sesser, plans are in the works to open locations in West Peoria and Carbondale.

Weed remains illegal to smoke in public, such as on the street or in parks, in public buildings, and on private property such as hotels or apartments where property owners prohibit it. The lounges provide a legal place for adults 21 and over to smoke or vape — and create social gatherings to share the experience with friends or acquaintances. The lounges operating so far can’t sell cannabis, so users bring their own.

In West Peoria, investors hope to open a cannabis lounge by late fall. It would be called High Harbor, on the site of the former Sky Harbor Steak House. Organizers plan to offer comedy nights, music, educational and corporate events, and yoga classes, after renovations are complete, real estate agent Christina Patellaro said.

This summer, the City Council voted to approve zoning for the concept. Investors include Ronald DiGiacomo, founder and vice president of Trinity Compassionate Care Centers, which operates two cannabis stores nearby in Peoria.

High Harbor and Trinity plan their opening event outdoors on the West Peoria site Sept. 10 and 11, featuring vendors, artisans, live art and music, and no on-site sales of cannabis, but bring-your-own consumption.

“We hope to create an environment for people to enjoy cannabis and have some creativity,” Patellaro said.

In Carbondale, a recreational cannabis store has proposed becoming what would apparently be the first dispensary in the state to offer a consumption area. This summer, the City Council voted to allow such lounges, and Consume Cannabis is working to build the space, which would require customers to buy their product there.

“The City Council is in full support of cannabis business,” Economic Development Director Steven Mitchell said. “Cannabis has been here since cannabis has been around. Southern Illinois University got a reputation in the 1960s and ‘70s as sort of a hippie town. Lots of folks came from the Chicago area and introduced a new culture to the region, and it has remained.”

Southern Illinois University in Carbondale has a new cannabis research center, but generally prohibits cannabis on its property, so the lounge can provide an alternative. The manager of Consume Cannabis is Dr. Christine Heck, also CEO of Progressive Treatment Solutions, which is licensed to grow cannabis in East St. Louis, but who did not immediately return a request to explain her plans.

When Holly Roeder opened the Luna Lounge in rural Sesser in July, she expected to get some young stoner customers. As she discovered, the clientele turned out to be older — typically over 40, up to 90, most of them medical marijuana patients.

“We get 60- and 70-year-old dudes walking in with their tie dye,” she said. “I love that.”

More than a month after opening, the Luna Lounge is thriving, sometimes drawing capacity crowds around 70 people to hear bands on weekend nights. It isn’t licensed to sell cannabis or alcohol, but customers can bring in their own weed and rent or buy pipes or bongs to smoke. Officials say there have been no problems there.

At another college town, DeKalb, Aroma’s Hookah Bar serves tobacco and also allows customers to bring in their own marijuana. Since opening in June, the store has offered promotions such as a $12 fee for unlimited time smoking cannabis in its lounge, or $5 on Wednesday, with free arcade games. They serve snacks and nonalcoholic drinks, and customers can play board games.

Co-owner Cameron Dye said the summer was slower than he’d hoped, but he’s expecting that more students will come in now that Northern Illinois University is resuming fall classes, but does not allow cannabis on campus. He planned to be out at Corn Fest last weekend, passing out promotional fliers with back-to-school specials.

“It’s so new that people don’t think it’s real,” he said. “They didn’t think anything like this could be possible, especially right across the street from the police station, When we tell them it’s OK, they’re blown away.”

Back in Sesser, population 1,900 and a five-hour drive from Chicago, customer Carla Curry said she can’t smoke at home because it’s publicly subsidized housing, and cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

Curry, a 55-year-old grandmother who previously worked in a boat factory, said she’s had three back surgeries, and has a medical marijuana card.

She says customers share a bond because they have a common treatment for their pains and anxiety. In an area riddled with addiction to methamphetamine, users said cannabis is widely seen as benign or beneficial.

“It damn near killed me,” she said of the Percocet, Xanax and muscle relaxants. Now, she said, cannabis has allowed her to get off all those pills. “It changed my life,” she said.

As for her fellow customers, she said, “It’s like family. Everybody welcomes you.”

Chris Duke, a professional licensed cannabis cultivator for IESO, works in his spare time at a converted bank vault in the lounge, showing customers how to use water pipes, bongs and other paraphernalia.

“People are surprised it’s such a chill environment,” he said. “Everybody’s having a good time laughing, having conversation. ... People say, ‘Hey, what are you smoking?’ Everybody shares. People actually mingle and talk to other people.”

Impediments remain to opening smoking sites in Chicago. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to allow consumption sites remains stalled in the City Council, while state legislation to expand consumption sites and cannabis tours failed to pass last session, but is likely to be reconsidered.


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