“Dispensary 33 has released a retro 8-bit video game,” Chicago Tribune

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The owners of a Chicago art gallery will be celebrating 420 this year — the “high holiday” that celebrates all things marijuana-related on April 20.

But the two women who run the Unladylike painting gallery say they have mixed emotions because Illinois remains mired in delay in awarding new cannabis business licenses, particularly for minority applicants.

“It’s frustrating, and at the same time motivating,” said Unladylike co-owner Lauren Victoria, who plans a Game Night to mark the occasion. “Events like this give us opportunities to not only commune in spaces of diversity with people who enjoy the herb and the medicine — it’s also a great opportunity for us to promote and network with other people in the industry.”

The term 420 — or 4/20, stated as “four twenty” — is said to have originated with a group of high school kids nicknamed the Waldos in Northern California in the 1970s who gathered at 4:20 p.m. to smoke weed. By now it’s become a common reference in marijuana culture to getting high.

Last year, the first year recreational marijuana was legalized in Illinois, the COVID pandemic shut down most 420 cannabis celebrations. This year, the occasion comes as Illinois officials still have not awarded 75 new dispensary licenses. Those licenses were created to provide more opportunities in the marijuana industry to minority owners and communities that were most hurt by the war on drugs.

Marijuana is consumed at Waldos Forever Fest, a celebration of marijuana culture on April 20, 2019, in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago.
Marijuana is consumed at Waldos Forever Fest, a celebration of marijuana culture on April 20, 2019, in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Still, as the state opens up from COVID restrictions, some consumers and pot-related businesses are planning subdued, socially distanced and masked celebrations around the Chicago area.

Game Night on Tuesday at Unladylike, 410 S. Michigan Ave., will feature board games, a spades card-playing tournament, mask wearing and social distancing, and is strictly BYOW — bring your own weed.

In Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, Tim Tuten, a co-owner of the Hideout music venue, doesn’t smoke marijuana — but he’ll be celebrating nonetheless.

“I don’t celebrate 420 as, ‘Yay, we get to get high,’” Tuten said. “I look at it more like a civil rights day. Marijuana and drug laws have always been enforced unequally. People with money always got away with smoking it, while kids in the city were criminalized. Legalization helps us get closer to equality.”

While the Hideout remains closed to the public, it will have a small, low-key gathering on its patio Tuesday, meant for customers of the neighboring nuEra Cannabis dispensary. The event will feature vendors selling records, T-shirts and houseplants, but will not feature music and will prohibit any consumption of cannabis, which remains illegal in public.

NuEra Cannabis, with five stores in Illinois, will help sponsor the event. Like other marijuana dispensaries in the state, it will be offering specials and giving away swag that day. One raffle will offer a Puffco Peak vaporizer for concentrates.

Jonah Rapino, nuEra’s marketing director, called it a “medium” celebration, hopefully on the way to full-scale parties next year.

Rapino said that cannabis use increased throughout the past year with no significant problems. “I think it’s wonderful that cannabis is becoming normalized,” he said.

Critics still rue legalization, and dread the normalization of marijuana. While the local group Opt Out Naperville disbanded after the suburb voted for legalization last year, national groups like Smart Approaches to Marijuana and Parents Opposed to Pot remain critical of 420 as a celebration of a drug that, for some, leads to addiction and traffic accidents.

A study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that fatal traffic accidents in the U.S. over a 25-year period increased 12% after 4:20 p.m. on April 20, compared with that same time one week before or after — with an even greater increase for drivers under 20.

A later study, though, found that when 420 was compared with control days two weeks before and after, the increase was much diminished, and was much less than for actual national holidays. Researchers said that it turned out to be comparable to a dozen other random days due to great variability in the number of daily crashes.

By one major social equity measure, it appears legalization was less successful than intended in Chicago. Despite legalization, which was meant to reduce historic discrepancies in arrest rates, Blacks made up more than three-fourths of those arrested in Chicago for marijuana possession in 2020, compared with 18% for Latinos and 4% for whites. Most arrests were for possessing or trying to sell more than the legally allowed 30 grams without a license.

To highlight disparity in enforcement, Chicago-based Cresco Cannabis announced it would release a trailer Tuesday for a documentary it produced, “The Sentence of Michael Thompson.” Cresco describes Thompson as a Navy veteran, General Motors worker and father in Michigan. He reportedly received a minimum 42-year prison term for selling cannabis and having a gun, before a coordinated campaign led to his release this year.

Other businesses have taken a more playful or productive approach to the day. Dispensary 33 in Andersonville has released a retro 8-bit video game called “Waldos Forever.” WeedTube, a cannabis-promoting website that was created after YouTube shut down much cannabis-related content, will launch Canna4Climate Day on April 21. It is planned as a day for cannabis supporters to clean up parks, rivers and other outdoor spaces, and will be a bridge between 420 and Earth Day on April 22.

Other announced events include at a painting party in Chatham, a pop-up shop in Chicago Lawn, and a celebration in the south suburbs, the location of which will be disclosed to partygoers shortly before the event.

In Lincoln Square, the Canna Bella Lux smoke boutique is planning a “femme forward” 420 celebration at the Davis Theater. It was to feature an hour of socially distanced mingling with drinks, followed by a screening of the film “Mean Girls.”

After the parties end, groups like Unladylike say they’ll continue to work with social equity groups to expand participation in the growing industry.

“We’re trying to put money back into brown and Black people’s pockets, because our families were incarcerated for drug charges,” co-owner DeJa Jovon said. “We have a lot of gratitude, but realize a lot more needs to be done.”

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