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'Bogged down with opioids'; As Kentucky moves toward legal medical cannabis, other states profit

In Illinois, out-of-state customers accounted for about 32% of total cannabis sales in 2021, almost $1.3 billion.

CHICAGO — Of the 50 states, 39 have legalized marijuana; five of them border Kentucky, while three of them border Indiana.

Not all allow out-of-staters to buy there; however, Illinois does, where both medical and recreational marijuana are legal.

According to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, out-of-state customers accounted for about 32% of total cannabis sales in 2021, which was almost $1.38 billion.

In the first 10 months of 2022, the rate remains consistent at around 31% of total sales, which was just under $1.28 billion.

Cresco Labs has three cannabis cultivation facilities in the state to supply their stores and other vendors.

Credit: John Charlton/WHAS-TV
Marijuana is seen growing in a facility in Illinois. Nov. 17, 2022

The state's largest grow operation is in Lincoln.

“The full facility is 221,000 square feet,” Facility Director Andrea Meister said. “180,000 of it is canopy,” where the marijuana is grown.

Meister says they’re growing about 70,000 plants at any given time and harvest every week, with a “wet harvest” of 1.6 million grams.

During the cultivation process, everything is controlled from the hours of light the plants get to the amount of water they’re given.

“We control Mother Nature in here,” Meister pointed out.

Controls are also in place for security.

That includes every plant barcoded and tracked from “seed to sale.”

Credit: John Charlton/WHAS-TV
Workers are seen trimming and checking the size of the marijuana flower bud before it gets bagged for shipment. Nov. 17, 2022

There are also unscheduled inspections every week from the state Department of Agriculture, as well as hundreds of security cameras throughout the building.

“They (state police) can log into our system at any time and see where all our plants are in the building,” Meister said.

Currently, Cresco Labs is growing 42 unique marijuana strains, to address a mix of needs.

“It’s a different type of medicine, we grow a variety of strains for the consumer, for what exactly they need,” Meister said.

Those needs are fulfilled at the 10 dispensaries Cresco Labs runs in Illinois, named Sunnyside, including three in Chicago.

FOCUS visited their retail space in Wrigleyville.

“We know that we’re doing good and helping people,” Cresco Labs spokesman Jason Erkes said.

Security is tight with armed guards and more security cameras for law enforcement to tap into.

There are also “wellness advisors” to help customers pick the right cannabis products. Customers like 60-year-old Lisa Parish.

Credit: Jon Charlton/WHAS-TV
Lisa Parish, 60, is talking to Sunnyside Wellness Advisor Josh Gomez about a marijuana-based balm to help with pain from rotator cuff and knee replacements. Nov. 17, 2022

“I don’t want to be bogged down with opioids and other drugs and stuff like that, that do harmful things to your body,” Parish said. “This is a better way because I’ve tried the other way.”

Parish lives in Tennessee, where like Kentucky and Indiana, not even medical marijuana is legal yet.

So she came up to Chicago for some cannabis balm and gummies to treat her pain from an old torn rotator cuff and previous knee replacements.

“This is the closest place,” she said.

Erkes added there are "many benefits to legalizing cannabis.”

That includes more than $435 million in sales tax revenue for Illinois for fiscal year 2022.

Legalized medical marijuana proposed in Kentucky, however, would not be taxed.

“People are consuming cannabis in Kentucky right now,” Erkes said while pointing out, “they’re buying it out of the back of a car or they’re buying it through an alley.”

He went on to stress that “it’s unsafe, it’s untested, it’s unregulated” to buy from the back of a car or alley.

Erkes and Cresco Labs invite skeptics, especially those in state government, to see their operations for themselves.

He says legal marijuana hasn’t increased crime in Chicago and had this response to pot being a gateway drug: "I would think it’s a gateway from more harmful, addictive drugs."

The drugs which are legal in Kentucky and Indiana, the opioids and prescription painkillers, Parish wants to stay away from.

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