By Robert McCoppin Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Robert McCoppin takes us along for the ride into "the somewhat surreal new world of cannabis tourism in Chicago."
For her birthday, one of Mary Biekert's daughters asked for something she'd never gotten before: a marijuana tour of Chicago.
So there was Biekert on a recent Saturday night, with her two adult daughters in a private smoking lounge in the city where a tour bus had dropped them off, getting lessons in how to roll a joint and smoke a bong.
The daughters, who live near St. Louis, had brought their own pot after spending three hours in line to buy from a licensed store in downstate Collinsville.
Their mother had never gotten high before, and never had the desire to try. But she recently had enjoyed using CBD, a component of marijuana that doesn't get users high, for joint pain and anxiety. "Things are so different now since they legalized it," she said, "so I figured I might as well."
The tour guide, a rapper named Infinite, showed the ladies the proper way to smoke a bong, which resembles a large, vertical glass pipe filled with water to cool the smoke. He warned that the high would be pretty intense, then congratulated them: "Now that's how you hit a bong!"
Biekert inhaled a small amount, said, "I'm good," when offered more, and cracked up when her daughter told a story about singeing off her eyebrows while smoking.
Such is the somewhat surreal new world of cannabis tourism in Chicago.
Opponents of marijuana legalization opponents dread the spread of pot buses, fearing they will promote intoxication and cause problems similar to those that have sometimes accompanied alcohol party buses.
Downplaying such concerns, a business called Loopr operated its inaugural tour Jan. 25, transporting a limo bus full of the pot experienced and weed curious through downtown for a short night of well-behaved partying.
The tour company eventually plans to offer visits to marijuana shops and grow houses in the Chicago area, but the lines at dispensaries often are too long with too little product, and state regulators have allowed very little access to cultivation centers.
So for now, Loopr takes passengers on a short bus ride to a condominium on the Near West Side. The condo offers couches and tables, bongs and pot grinders, along with coffee and tea, but no alcohol or pot, leaving passengers to bring their own stash.
The 16 guests on the inaugural tour relaxed in the lounge and talked while passing a pipe or a joint, and enjoying the novel experience of sharing a newly legal experience. The state law that legalized pot beginning this year states that it may not be smoked in public, but Loopr considers the lounge a private space. The law prohibits smoking in a motor vehicle, so no consumption is allowed on the bus.
City and state officials say a commercially operated smoking lounge must be in a licensed cannabis or tobacco shop, so any other location would not comply with the law, but how they enforce that remains to be seen.
The $55, three-hour tour started with passengers gathering at the city's iconic Water Tower. Once on the bus, the sightseeing emcee Infinite put a cannabis twist on the typical city tour, suggesting stoners may have started the Chicago Fire, and describing the Cloud Gate sculpture as a giant marijuana bean and Willis Tower as big enough for 4 million pot plants.
As a local piece of trivia, the smoking lounge also had what was purported to be a signed Weber grill that served as a football helmet for the lion sculptures outside the Art Institute when the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl in 1986.
Most of those taking the tour live in the Chicago area. They had not come for sightseeing, but rather for what still felt to some like a countercultural experience.
Susan Michaels, a 37-year-old retail manager from Highland Park, basked in the "good vibe" with her friends.
"I'm happy to see this is offered in Chicago," she said. "I don't understand how alcohol has been legal all this time and cannabis hasn't, when it's so much safer."
Once the passengers left the laid-back lounge and took the bus to the nearby Emporium Arcade Bar in Fulton Market, some felt a shock entering the noisy, crowded saloon, with one passenger remarking on the "alcohol culture."
Some passengers had a drink and left quickly, while other stayed and took the tour bus back to their starting point.
"It sounded like a good idea, to get high and not to have to deal with traffic," said Alyssa Rhone, 28, of Oak Forest. "Everybody's friendly, everybody's high, and in a great mood."
A competing Chicago business, Paint and Puff Class, also offers tours, as well as painting lessons at which patrons may bring their own marijuana to smoke and explore their artistic muse.
Those who opposed marijuana legalization, such as Kevin Sabet, former White House drug adviser and now president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, are equally dubious about pot tourism.
"The bus tours and smoking lounges are all part of the industry's playbook to normalize a substance they want to make money from," he wrote in an email. "It's Big Tobacco all over again."
Jennifer Taylor, spokeswoman for Opt Out in Naperville, which opposes marijuana commercialization, worried that the same kinds of problems that have at times plagued alcohol party buses in Chicago, including shootings, illegal drugs and lesser violations, could occur with weed tours.
"You're creating this party culture," she said. "Our kids have so many issues and vices facing them. This is another one."
While marijuana bus tours are not specifically regulated, smoking lounges are. The state agency that regulates recreational cannabis sales, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, warned that such a smoking lounge may not comply with state law.
A spokesman issued this statement: "Any consumption of cannabis must follow the guidelines set out in the legislation, cannabis may not be consumed in public spaces, and any on-site consumption may only occur at licensed dispensaries and retail tobacco stores as authorized by local governments."
A cannabis store in Springfield has been licensed to operate a consumption area, but other dispensaries and tobacco stores have not yet been approved. City of Chicago spokesman Patrick Mullane said officials were trying to educate business operators on the law: "The city continues to work with the local elected officials, community members and industry experts to develop smart and effective regulations as cannabis expands in Chicago. As part of this process, we are committed to building more opportunities for new entrepreneurs while educating consumers and ensuring businesses follow the rules."
When asked about marijuana consumption areas Friday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was "worried" about pot buses. She proposed further crafting laws to address the issue, saying, "We've got to give people a safe place to consume."
Loopr officials maintain they are following state law by allowing consumption only in a private dwelling, only by adults 21 and older, and not on the bus or in public. They said they'd have their lawyer talk with state and city officials.
Bryan Spatz, co-founder of Loopr, grew up in north suburban Glencoe and is a 1996 graduate of New Trier High School. He worked in real estate development for years, and leaped at the chance to participate when Colorado legalized commercial sales of cannabis in 2014.
"This is my generation's unique opportunity," he said, "in the way that the dot-com bubble was for the previous generation."