Illinois’ First Marijuana Lounge

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Photo: Shutterstock

But it’s not in Chicago or the suburbs.

For the first time in Illinois, cannabis smokers will be able to legally light up in public Saturday in a lounge specifically built for that purpose.

There have been discussions in Chicago and elsewhere in the state about opening consumption spaces, but the first will be in the tiny downstate city of Sesser, in a remodelled former bank.

Despite a local election battle that was fought over allowing a gathering place for marijuana users, owner Holly Roeder remains optimistic that locals and visitors will support her new venture, The Luna Lounge.

“We’re providing a place to smoke cannabis, just like a bar — but with no alcohol,” Roeder said.

The state law that legalized cannabis last year prohibits consumption in public, including in motor vehicles and parks. People are allowed to smoke in their homes, but a landlord or business may prohibit it, and the government bans it in all its buildings, including public housing. That leaves many renters and visitors from out of state, in particular, with nowhere to smoke legally.

The law allows local governments to authorize smoking lounges for adults 21 and up, but only in licensed cannabis dispensary or a “retail tobacco store,” defined as a shop that generates 80% of more of its revenue from the sale of tobacco or smoking products.

The lounge is not licensed to sell marijuana, so customers must bring their own legally purchased weed. Customers are still subject to state laws requiring cannabis to be in sealed container from a dispensary, and may still be arrested for driving while impaired.

Customers pay a $4.20 entry fee (the amount is a reference to smoking pot) and may buy CBD, pipes and rolling papers and rent bongs out of the old bank vault. The lounge will provide entertainment, with bands, a fire eater and a tarot card reader for opening night, and comedians on other nights, plus video, cards and board games.

Roeder said she worked 10 years in the cannabis industry in California, as a dispensary manager and a cannabis chemist. She also has applied for a license to infuse edibles with cannabis, but has been waiting more than a year for the state to award those licenses after many delays.

The building, which was also once a bar, was renovated with what Roeder describes as a mashup of Roaring ’20s vintage style, dark colors and funky accents of leopard print, velvet and damask. While the lounge may not serve alcohol or food, the block outside will be shut down for opening night for entertainment and a food truck.

Sesser is about 300 miles south of Chicago and has a population of about 1,900.

The City Council last year approved allowing the business on a 4-2 vote. The city provided a $7,500 grant from downtown property taxes to help make the club accessible for people with disabilities.

Some were against the lounge. A group of eight local church pastors signed a letter opposing the lounge, worried that it would promote drug use. A conservative candidate ran for mayor to shut it down, but incumbent Mayor Jason Ashmore won the April election with 72% of the vote.

“The feedback we’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive,” the mayor said. “I don’t partake, but just like every new business, I’m going to show up and show my support. I hope they have a domino effect and bring in tourism for other businesses. We’re hoping it will help Sesser grow.”

Last year, the city of Springfield approved a proposal for a consumption lounge at a dispensary downtown, but since Ascend Wellness Holdings acquired the store, they have not pursued those plans.

A rival dispensary, Maribis, opened recently in a former movie theater in Springfield, and has proposed a consumption area, but would need zoning approval to do so.

So far, no cannabis dispensary operators have opened smoking lounges. They make millions of dollars statewide selling cannabis and sending customers home, without having to deal with stoned guests or any associated liability.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot last year proposed allowing cannabis lounges in smoke shops, but the ordinance stalled in the City Council. Some aldermen worried about creating unruly party spots. Others were concerned with a lack of equity, with most existing tobacco shops located on the North Side, and questioned how anyone would make money paying a $4,400 licensing fee and trying to combine weed tokers with cigar smokers.

A proposed state law would let local governments authorize consumption and tours at other nonresidential locations, but it did not pass in the spring session.