Wicker Park's Emporium Arcade bar. Credit: Hannah Alani/Block Club Chicago

WICKER PARK — When weed becomes legal in Chicago in the coming months, you may have to leave the neighborhood to hit up a dispensary.

On Friday, the team behind Emporium Arcade Bar, 1366 N. Milwaukee Ave., essentially scrapped previous plans to open a recreational dispensary in the former Barry’s Drugs location next to their arcade.

Company owners made this decision during a citywide zoning lottery, where 19 groups with medical dispensary licenses got first dibs on recreational dispensary locations. At the lottery, owners chose to take one of seven licenses from one of seven city districts: North, Northwest, Central, West, Southwest, Southeast and Far South.

The Emporium team, which also owns Modern Cannabis in Logan Square, opted for a license in the coveted Central district. While recreational cannabis sales won’t be allowed in the Loop or Magnificent Mile, the Central district is the most affluent and closest to Downtown.

The decision did not come as a surprise to neighborhood leaders, especially given the many hoops the team would have had to jump through to open a dispensary in Barry’s.

In mid-October, the Modern Cannabis team — brothers Doug and Danny Marks of Emporium and Barry Golin of Barry’s Drugs — asked neighborhood leaders for support on their idea to convert the former pharmacy at 1370 N. Milwaukee Ave. into a pot shop.

RELATED: Emporium Arcade Owners’ Plan To Turn Barry’s Drugs Into Recreational Cannabis Dispensary Hits Roadblock In Wicker Park

During the presentation, neighborhood leaders were lukewarm to the idea. This month, however, neighbors voted 20-9 to consider future proposals for neighborhood pot shops.

But a lot has changed since the Marks brothers first started talking about opening a dispensary in Wicker Park.

When the group initially pitched the idea, the city had yet to set new zoning requirements for dispensaries. As city rules stand today, the Barry’s Drugs site would need a zoning change in order to become a pot shop — requiring community buy-in and the approval of the City Council’s zoning committee.

“When they came to us, they were looking to get their ducks in a row,” neighborhood leader Paul Dickman said. “At that time, zoning wasn’t a problem and the idea of holding a location lottery for the existing medical dispensaries’ second locations hadn’t been formulated.”

Now, it’s no secret that opening a pot shop in Wicker Park will be difficult.

City rules essentially ban dispensaries from opening outright on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park without a zoning change.

With the exception of properties near the intersection of North and Western avenues, Wicker Park largely lacks areas with the required zoning for a dispensary, Dickman said.

At Friday’s lottery, four new licenses were given out for the Northwest District, which includes Wicker Park and most of Bucktown, along with Logan Square, Portage Park and O’Hare. View a map of the districts here.

Though four other companies snagged licenses in the Northwest District, it’s unclear whether any have contacted neighborhood leaders about opening up shop in Wicker Park. According to the Sun-Times, these groups include PharmaCann, Mindful Dispensary, Green Thumb Industries and Healthway Services of West Illinois.

Jeremy Unruh of PharmaCann told Block Club Thursday the company has not yet decided what neighborhood it will pursue in the Northwest district. 

“We’re still not resolved on particular neighborhoods or sites in any of the zones where we were fortunate enough to have been slotted,” he said.

Linda Marsicano of Green Thumb Industries said the company is “honored and excited” to bring its retail brand, “Rise,” to the Northwest District. “[We] look forward to serving more people and making a positive impact in the community,” she said.

Founded in 2014, PharmaCann has five medical dispensaries and two production sites in Illinois. The group also has locations in Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Green Thumb Industries’ corporate headquarters are in Chicago, but the company’s footprint includes 96 retail dispensaries across the United States. Like PharmaCann, the company has five medical dispensaries and two production sites in Illinois.

The two other groups are vastly smaller in scale, with footholds in the Western suburbs: Healthway Services has one dispensary in St. Charles, while Mindful Dispensary has one shop in Addison.

Dickman wasn’t surprised the Emporium team opted for the Central district when given the chance.

“The lottery gave them an opportunity to go through those steps in a more lucrative area, and they took it,” he said. “I would not rule out the possibility of them coming back to the Barry’s Drug spot in the future when they think about expansion and there are more licenses available in the Northwest Weed District.”

Between January and May 2020, a maximum of seven recreational dispensaries may exist within each cannabis district.

In May, that number doubles to 14 per district, Wicker Park Committee president Kyle Sneed said.

Medical dispensaries get dibs in lottery

Chicago zoning code allows medical dispensaries like Logan Square’s Modern Cannabis, which opened before June 25, to automatically open a recreational cannabis dispensary on-site and sell weed Jan. 1.

Medical dispensaries with state-issued Early Approval Licenses, however, got first dibs on a second recreational dispensary in a location of their choosing during Friday’s lottery.

The 11 existing medical dispensaries’ locations were not subject to the lottery, but they did affect the amount of remaining licenses.

For example, Modern Cannabis’ Logan Square location took away one of seven possible licenses in the Northwest District.

As lottery names were called, the Central, West, North and Northwest slots were taken first. Then the Southwest slots. The Southeast and Far South slots were chosen last.

The appearance of the room where Friday’s lottery took place raised some eyebrows.

Photos of the room, overwhelmingly white and male, circulated on social media, prompting some to question whether the new state law legalizing marijuana will create an equitable environment as promised.

RELATED: Dispensary Lottery So White: With No Black Owners In The Mix, Black Caucus Could Move To Stall Weed Sales

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of City Council’s Black Caucus, said the absence of African-American owners in the room was also alarming.

“I think the biggest challenge is that there are only seven locations that remain for any other applicants,” said Ervin, who plans to introduce an ordinance to postpone marijuana sales until July so that equity concerns could be addressed. “Again, there are no African-Americans in this mix and so we will continue to push forward an outright ban until social equity applicants come in.”

Earlier this month, Wicker Park neighborhood leader Teddy Varndell questioned how the Emporium-Modern Cannabis-Barry’s Drugs team — three white men — would contribute to furthering a central goal of the state’s marijuana legalization.

The law, signed by Gov. JB Pritzker, intended to help Chicagoans adversely affected by the War on Drugs, Varndell said.

“I’m not aware of any people that hold [medical dispensary] licenses that are people of color,” he said. “And our neighborhood has not been dope blighted for 20 years.”

RELATED: With Legal Weed, South Side Neighborhoods Hurt By War On Drugs Will Get Economic Boost, Officials Say: ‘This Is Reparations’

Jamie Nesbitt-Golden and Justin Laurence contributed to this report.

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