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Cannabis stores gear up for massive Lollapalooza sales off-site

A month after the exhaust from NASCAR stock cars dissipates, a different kind of smoke will begin to rise from the environment around Grant Park.

The annual Lollapalooza music festival returns Thursday for strong sales at nearby Chicago cannabis shops, if four days of music, celebration, and recent history are any guide. Now in its third year of legal recreational cannabis sales, Lollapalooza has become a green letter day for the emerging industry.

“Definitely the biggest weekend of the year at any of our Illinois stores in terms of the amount of consumers we see and the new consumers we introduce recreational marijuana,” said Jason Erkes, spokesperson for Chicago-based Cresco Labs. He owns the Sunnyside dispensary closest to Grant Park.

Founded in 1991, Lollapalooza made Chicago its permanent home in 2005 and has become a major tourist attraction for the city, attracting hundreds of thousands of festival-goers and pouring millions into the local economy. Lollapalooza, canceled at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, is back in 2021 with a new change – recreational cannabis first time legal in the 30-year history of the music festival.

Since then, cannabis companies have been taking advantage of the event with special promotions that turn Lollapalooza into a sales bonanza for nearby dispensaries.

Last summer, the Sunnyside dispensary on North Clark Street in River North served more than 4,000 customers during Lollapalooza, and Erkes expects to exceed that number this year. To speed up the process, Sunnyside is opening an expanded outdoor staging area on the street in front of the store.

To stimulate early sales, the first 200 Sunnyside customers on Thursday will receive a $30 vape pen for $1 with any purchase. Cannabis companies are not allowed to give away doobies for free under state law, Erkes said.

The Verilife dispensary on West Superior Street in River North doubled regular store traffic in Lollapalooza last year, with both a parked bus serving as a pop-up smoking lounge and free service festival, according to company spokesperson Melissa Buckley. The smoking bus will return this summer, but the “marijuana” service will not.

Buckley said Wednesday that the decommissioned Greyhound bus converted into a mobile marijuana lounge is smokier than Willie Nelson’s tour bus, which lit up more than 2,000 customers during Lollapalooza last summer. The smoking bus will be parked in front of the dispensary during the festival.

Last year, Verilife provided two shuttle buses running every 20 minutes between Grant Park and its store, bringing approximately 700 customers to the festival. But Buckley said traffic is making them less effective than planned, with many customers finding it quicker to walk the 1.5 mile to Lollapalooza.

“There was just so much traffic,” Buckley said. “So this year we decided to focus a little bit more on having a party just outside of where we are, rather than getting people on the bus back and forth.”

While Lollapalooza has a host of alcohol sponsors, from Bud Light to Bacardi, marijuana is not an official part of the festivities. Consumption of cannabis products at Lollapalooza, long an integral part of outdoor music festivals, remains elusive at best. According to the Lollapalooza website, all Chicago parks ban all forms of cigarettes, including electronic cigarettes.

C3 Presents, which produces Lollapalooza, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Cannabis stores in the city and in the suburbs are nonetheless off-site beneficiaries of the festival.

“We’re seeing the ripple effect in a few of our stores,” Buckley said. “We have a location in Rosemont that you pass by on your way from the airport to the city, so that location also sees an elevator.”

Verilife is owned by PharmaCann, a Chicago-based private cannabis company that was founded in 2014 and operates in eight states, including eight dispensaries in Illinois.

Established in 2013, Cresco Labs is located in 10 states with 14 manufacturing facilities and 68 dispensaries operating under the Sunnyside brand. Cresco has 10 retail dispensaries in Illinois (the maximum amount allowed by the state) and manufacturing facilities in Joliet, Kankakee, and Lincoln.

Cresco on Monday, ends proposed $2 billion cannabis mega merger with New York-based Columbia Care due to improving market conditions such as falling stock prices, tightening credit and flattening industry sales.

Illinois legalized recreational marijuana in January 2020 and ranks third in the country after California and Michigan in total sales, with revenue driven in part by the highest retail prices in the country, according to cannabis research firm Headset.

Last year, recreational marijuana sales increased 12.6% to more than $1.55 billion. But entertainment sales hit $784 million in the first six months, and the pace has slowed this year, up 4.5% year-over-year, according to state data.

There are 138 licensed recreational cannabis dispensaries in Illinois.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

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