By Les Jacobson

Sales of marijuana at the State’s dispensaries are blowing away expectations. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Recreational marijuana sales in Illinois generated more than $10 million in tax revenue in January, putting the state on track to surpass Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget estimates.”

This is great for Evanston, where a dispensary run by MedMen Enterprises located across from the movie theater is doing gangbuster business. Lines are long and the revenues (and tax receipts) are pouring in. Sales of recreational marijuana have been restricted to accommodate the tremendous demand and keep supplies available for medicinal customers.

My first real experience smoking “grass” (or “pot” as we also called it) was Thanksgiving of 1968. I had tried it a few times before with negligible results, so I was convinced it was “all in your head.” But my best friend Jay was determined to get me stoned. And since his parents were out of town that night we went to their apartment, where Jay had rolled a couple of good-sized joints. He directed me into a small clothes closet, shut the door – dark, shoes on the floor, clothes hanging on our heads – and lit up. The idea was to keep the pot-infested air recirculating so we breathed it continuously. “Slow, slow,” he instructed as I tried to inhale. I had never smoked cigarettes and wasn’t very good at it.

When we were finally done we emerged into the bright lights of the next room where I thought, “Now, now that was silly.” But then I noticed I was moving v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. Curious. Everyday objects – a vase, the TV, paintings – took on a new, enhanced dynamic. More curious. And offhand remarks were somehow hilarious. Better yet!

Thus commenced half a century of lighting up – at parties, movies, concerts – almost anywhere. Part of the appeal, at least when we were young, was that it was illegal. I Iiked the camaraderie of smoking with friends, and the buzz, which, since I didn’t drink alcohol, was novel and fun.

But most of all I liked playing my viola stoned. Even scales sounded sublime!

At the time we thought pot would be legal within a few years. It seemed so harmless, so benign, so enjoyable. Who could resist? Then came the pushback: it was addictive and dangerous, a gateway to cocaine or heroin. Reefer madness! After that it seemed like it would never be legal. And yet, here we are, half a century later, legal across much of the country. Amazing. As the Grateful Dead sang: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Since the first of the year marijuana (“cannabis” now seems the preferred term) has been available at 55 dispensaries around the State, including more than a dozen in the Chicago area.

What’s it like to visit one?

At 1804 Maple it’s anything but psychedelic; in fact, it’s strictly business.

When I was there on a late January morning just as the doors were opening, 50 or 60 people were lined up ahead of me, from the Maple Avenue garage into the MedMen office. We were a mixed lot – young and old, black and white, buttoned-down squares and old-fashioned hippies. People were cheery,  and no one seemed to mind the wait. Three or four assistants in red MedMen shirts checked driver’s licenses (out-of-state buyers got a smaller allotment), answered questions and explained the day’s menu. Different products are available on different days.

MedMen merchandise with the company’s marijuana leaf logo was displayed behind a case: T-shirts, caps, hoodies, as well as vapes and assorted paraphernalia. There were also handouts, including one titled “Switch to Cannabis” about an opioid alternative pilot program and another labeled “Marijuana Drug Facts” that had tips for newcomers on “How do people use Marijuana?” which included this helpful observation: “People smoke marijuana in hand-rolled cigarettes (joints) or in pipes or water pipes (bongs).” There were also warnings about the higher THC levels of today’s cannabis and the negative effects of long-term use.

From the outer room I was finally ushered into the inner sanctum, where four employees behind counters rechecked IDs and took orders – cash or debit card only. The “product,” including edibles, capsules, tablets and oils, was secured in a back room behind a locked door.

I bought one gram of Medihaze “flower” (the term for dried leaf) with less than 10% THC content, passing on two other more powerful strains. My purchase amounted to half a dozen buds of varying sizes. Back in the day the same $25 would have purchased five one-ounce baggies equaling more than 140 grams, but time and prices march on. And in any case the one gram should last me for years.

A spokesman for Los Angeles-based MedMen said the company was started 10 years ago and now has 33 dispensaries in six states. The Evanston facility was acquired from another firm in 2019. Sales are “very positive,” he said.

As I was leaving, I saw a computer screen at the front desk showing multiple camera shots of the street front. Outside everything seemed normal. Inside it was a strange new world.