Some worry high prices, stigma keeping illicit cannabis market alive in Illinois

While adult-use cannabis has been legal since the first of the year in Illinois, some are wondering if high dispensary prices are keeping people from moving to the legal market. (Photo courtesy: WJBC/File)

By Illinois Radio Network

SPRINGFIELD – While adult-use cannabis has legal in Illinois since Jan. 1, some remain concerned that high prices are keeping people from moving to the legal market.

Illinois legalized medical cannabis five years ago. Starting Jan. 1, dozens of medical dispensaries around the state began selling cannabis products to adults 21 and older.

With news last year and the year before of people dying or being injured by synthetic marijuana and illicit marijuana vaping cartridges, Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently told Politico Live that he was confident the legal market would be more appealing than the illicit market.

“You don’t want to go find some dealer that’s gonna sell you something that you don’t know what’s in it, you don’t know where it came from, that’s why people, I think, are showing up at the dispensaries, and you know we had a great first month,” Pritzker said.

Cannabis buyers in Illinois spent nearly $40 million in January, according to state regulators. State officials haven’t released official revenue totals from the sales, but the state taxes can add up to more than 40 percent, depending on the potency of the product.

It’s too early to tell how the legal market is affecting illicit sales, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police said Wednesday.

During a debate Tuesday about limiting the number of cannabis stores in Springfield, where there’s already one adult-use store and another on the way, Alderman Joe McMenamin said the illicit market in California, where cannabis has been legal for years, has surpassed the legal market.

The Los Angeles Times reported in September that California’s black market for cannabis was at least three times the size of the state’s regulated industry.

McMenamin said he suspected the same thing is happening in Illinois.

“It’s probably because the younger buyers are buying on the black market still because they can’t afford the prices at the dispensary,” he said.

An eighth of an ounce of cannabis flower that costs $60 on the street could cost more than $80 in a dispensary when Illinois taxes are included.

But it’s not just the price of regulated and taxed cannabis that keeps people going to the illicit market. Springfield Alderman Shawn Gregory said many young adults still buy on the black market because of stigma surrounding cannabis use.

“That comes from things that we say, things that we just keep hammering it like it’s the worst thing on earth,” Gregory said. “There are still people struggling out there that it is legal and that they can just go buy it, for real. It’s like waking up from a dream, honestly.”

Gregory also said people he knows in Decatur, a city that prohibits recreational sales, were frustrated they can’t get involved in the legal market.

“That community is upset,” Gregory said. “They’re upset because there are individuals that have to, one, drive here [to purchase legal cannabis]. They can’t get into the business, and a young person, African American that they’re so ready to get into it, they don’t have the opportunity in Decatur. They’re fuming.”

Pritzker said state law was designed to spur economic development in underserved areas and communities affected by the war on drugs. But state law also gives local governments the ability to prohibit adult-use sales.

Pritzker also said the federal government needs to allow banking opportunities for legal cannabis businesses to deter crime.

“We had one dispensary that was broken into because they have cash, we don’t have a great banking system in the United States if you’ve legalized cannabis in your state,” Pritzker said. “We’ve got to solve that at a federal level.”

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