The bright white and pale green modern décor of the sunlit lobby took me by surprise. I half-expected to be navigating a shadowy obstacle course of vitrines full of bongs and pipes on my first visit to a legal cannabis dispensary. In what has come to be known as the Cole Memo, the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Obama Administration issued a guidance in 2013 discouraging federal authorities from pursuing cannabis-related offenses in states where cannabis sales had been made legal. But on January 4, 2018, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the DOJ had rescinded the Cole Memo. So, I decided to visit one of Chicago’s dispensaries to see how the medical cannabis business in Illinois might have been impacted. I had the pleasure of interviewing Zach Zises, Owner of Dispensary 33, a legal medical cannabis dispensary at 5001 N. Clark Street in Chicago.
F Newsmagazine: So how’s business?
Zach Zises: Governor Rauner has done his best to throttle the medical cannabis program to the greatest degree of his authority. He has refused to accept the mounting evidence that the availability of medical cannabis reduces the rates of opioid addiction and fatalities, and has refused to broaden the medical conditions for which Illinois residents would qualify for cannabis cards. He also keeps the Illinois Department of Public Health woefully understaffed. As a result, receiving a card now takes over 3 months rather than 2 weeks, and this wait time increases every month. That said, the program has been an enormous success for those who have received cards. The quality and innovation of products in Illinois rivals anywhere else in the world and our patients are, as a whole, thrilled with what we are able to provide.
F: How long have you been in business?
ZZ: We opened our doors on December 9, 2015, the first dispensary in Chicago to do so.
F: How does someone become a client?
ZZ: Anyone curious about getting a medical cannabis card should first read through our website. The biggest impediment to joining the medical cannabis program is finding a doctor to sign a patient’s certification, because the vast majority of physicians refuse to do so. But we have come to know of some sympathetic doctors and can steer people in some good directions.
F: Has the decision by Jeff Sessions to rescind the Cole Memo affected the operation of your business, or scared away investors?
ZZ: It was great that the rescinding of the Cole Memo generated so much press. It served as a wakeup call to Washington that any actions they take against cannabis will be big news and will create a huge amount of pushback. The reality, however, is that that action had zero impact on our industry. We receive an enormous amount of protection from the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, which forbids the DEA from expending any resources to prosecute State-legal medical cannabis businesses. If Congress doesn’t extend that amendment in its new budget, then Sessions will have a far broader spectrum of potential weapons at his disposal.
F: Are you encouraged by the support of certain members of congress, and leaders at the state level?
ZZ: Cannabis is flowing the same way gay marriage did, albeit a lot faster. Wherever cannabis becomes legal (both as medical and as adult use) it wins the hearts and minds of the public, who see that its benefits far outweigh its harms, and in a far more delayed timeline, [the hearts and minds] of the politicians, who come to find that their support does not hurt their reelection chances and that it is good policy both because of tax generation, because it reduces incarceration rates, and saves law enforcement resources for crimes that actually matter. The horse is out of the barn — it’s all just a matter of time at this point.
F: Jeff Sessions stated recently that the DOJ is not interested in busting small-time cannabis users; does that give you any comfort?
ZZ: The Attorney General can say whatever he wants. It’s mostly just noise.
F: Are you nervous that the Fraternal Order of Police has spoken out in support of rescinding the Cole Memo, and that local police have the right to seize money and property under civil forfeiture laws, if they are cooperating on a federal drug raid?
ZZ: Civil asset forfeiture laws seem incredibly difficult to reconcile with our 4th Amendment due process rights, and I am sorry that it is a tool that law enforcement entities have the power to use against anyone. The local police work for my locality, which has licensed me to sell cannabis, so I have no idea how that would actually play out. But, as for now, the feds are barred from raiding Illinois dispensaries, while Rohrabacher-Blumenauer remains the law of the land.
F: Some law enforcement officials in states where cannabis is legal argue that legalizing cannabis has created a growing black market in cannabis trade run by those who don’t comply with the law. Is that your sense of what is happening?
ZZ: One statistic I’ve read showed that legal cannabis has destroyed the cannabis trade from Mexico into the US and forced the cartels to move into other lines of operation. I think that’s a great development. 62,000 Americans died from overdosing on opioids in the past 14 months. I have no patience for anyone who says we should be focusing on some puny amount of black market activity in a substance that demonstrably saves lives, from which no one has ever overdosed and which improves quality of life wherever it is available. The myopia of such people is jaw-gapingly astounding.
F: A federal lawsuit involving NFL player Marvin Washington, in which Jeff Sessions was named as a defendant, was recently dismissed from federal court. What are your thoughts on the judge redirecting the plaintiffs in the case to petition the DEA to get marijuana removed from the list of dangerous substances?
ZZ: The arc of the moral universe is longer in Washington than most everywhere else. Justice will come, just not nearly as soon as it should.