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Near North Side, River North

Rainforest Cafe Weed Dispensary Plan Lacks True Equity, Activists Say: We’re ‘Done With Tokenism’

One of the companies behind the dispensary recently tapped former Ald. Terry Peterson, who is Black, as its CEO. But Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change leaders said that's not enough, and asked the dispensary to commit to a community benefits agreement.

The former Rainforest Cafe.
Justin Laurence/Block Club Chicago
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RIVER NORTH — A violence prevention group criticized a dispensary that’s trying to open in the former Rainforest Café, saying the project does little to diversify a predominately white industry or benefit nonwhite communities.

Bio-Pharm and Palatine-based PTS are partnering to try to open a dispensary at 605 N. Clark St. The two would do away with the giant mushrooms and jungle-themed designs at the closed restaurant, investing $7-10 million into the new dispensary. They’d have graffiti-proof walls with LED lighting, armed security guards and 55 off-site parking spaces, company officials said.

Bio-Pharm is among the companies that received one of the 185 coveted social equity cannabis licenses from the state in 2021, part of an effort to bring more people of color into the legal weed business.

But Members of Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change said the companies had few leaders of color at the meeting, and they should create a community benefits agreement to give back to local organizations and causes that support people of color.

“We talk about social equity, and when I look at this room I see a number of white faces,” Tyrone Muhammad, executive director of the group, said at the meeting. “When we talk about social equity, [Black people] built the cannabis industry for 70 years.”

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
Consume Cannabis wants to open a weed dispensary in the old Rainforest Cafe building in River North.

PTS originally sought to relocate its Norwood Park dispensary into the vacant 22,000-square-foot building, but it had to go back to the drawing board after the Sun-Times revealed its plan was illegal. State law bars early retail license holders from moving within 1,500 feet of another dispensary and prohibits medical dispensaries from relocating outside their assigned districts.

RELATED: From Jungle To Joints: Rainforest Cafe Could Become A Weed Dispensary

The company partnered with Bio-Pharm to revamp its bid. The majority owner of Bio-Pharm was arrested in 1972 for cannabis possession, which made them eligible for the license lottery. The majority owner’s son, Kevin Munroe, is the company’s chief operating officer.

PTS also recently tapped former 17th Ward Ald. Terry Peterson, who is Black, as its CEO. According to 2021 data from Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, only one Black person had an ownership stake in a dispensary over the past two years.

Both companies claim to have significant minority ownership, but Muhammad said Peterson was the only person of color presenting at the meeting.

“I’m happy to see a Black face, but we done with tokenism in the city,” Muhammad said.

Credit: Melody Mercado/ Block Club Chicago
Kevin Munroe, chief operating officer of Bio-Pharm and Terry Peterson, chief executive officer of PTS Corp, take questions from residents at a River North Residents Association meeting for a proposed dispensary at the old Rainforest Cafe.

Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change started in 2017 and has helped more than 250 formerly incarcerated people find work. Muhammad is also trying to open a shop in Washington Park where people who served prison time for drug crimes would legally sell CBD and hemp-derived products.

PTS and Bio-Pharm “should rely on their own benevolence to also find social equity groups to give sizable donations to, especially groups like ours that’s out here fighting, creating jobs and opportunity and that’s out here mentoring and reducing recidivism,” Muhammad said.

Representatives with Bio-Pharm and PTS said they were committed to meeting with Muhammad if their proposal gets city approval.

“We committed to them that we’re going to reach out to them and see … if we’re allowed to go forward with this dispensary … how we can work together,” Peterson said.

Bio-Pharm’s conditional state dispensary license is on hold because of a lawsuit challenging the state’s process, which has prevented the companies that won licenses from moving forward with their plans. But Peterson said he’s not worried and has been advised the judge is leaning toward releasing the licenses this summer. If and when that happens, the companies want to be ready, he said.

Other residents at the meeting questioned why another dispensary is needed in an area that already has three nearby. Peterson said both companies want the dispensary to be in a vibrant, thriving neighborhood with lots of traffic, and the previous Rainforest Café hit all those boxes.

“I believe in competition. … We want to be a good partner in the area. We want to make sure that we are a net benefit. … We want to enhance the quality of life in the community,” Peterson said.

The proposal will next be considered by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

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