Chart: Recreational cannabis stores will be few and far between in Illinois

Just Released! Get realistic market forecasts, state-by-state insights and benchmarks with the new 2024 MJBiz Factbook member program, now with quarterly updates. Make informed decisions.

Recreational cannabis sales are set to begin in Illinois at the start of the new year, but a lack of retail stores threatens to curtail the rollout of what could eventually be a $2.5 billion market.

Limited access to adult-use cannabis stores in the first few months of rec sales is not atypical for the launch of a new recreational market.

However, Illinois has taken a restrictive approach to licensing adult-use businesses in general, and – combined with the ability of local governments to ban marijuana businesses – a lack of access to retail stores could persist indefinitely.

That would leave room for black-market operators to serve consumers.

Theoretically, there could be as many as 110 adult-use stores in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020: Each of the 55 existing dispensaries will be able to sell to the rec market, and each will have the option of adding a second adult-use store.

State regulators will award licenses for up to 75 new adult-use retail stores by May 1, 2020, bringing the maximum possible rec stores in Illinois to 185.

However, because towns and municipalities can ban retail stores, it’s highly unlikely that all 185 stores will be up and running in the next year.

For example, major Chicago suburbs, such as Naperville and Bolingbrook, have banned adult-use cannabis stores.

Furthermore, outside the Chicago area, Illinois is generally a more rural and conservative state, which may make it a tougher sell for businesses looking to establish rec stores.

By the end of 2020, 1.5 retail stores per 100,000 residents is possible in Illinois, but it’s likely to be less than 1. On a per capita basis, that’s about 10% of the number of adult-use stores currently in Colorado.

Illinois law stipulates that at no point can the number of retail stores in the state exceed 500 – meaning once the industry is fully up and running, the state could have about a quarter of the number of adult-use stores, on a per capita basis, currently operating in Oregon.

What does that mean for the health of Illinois’ adult-use industry?

Ultimately, it will take longer for Illinois’ rec market to mature, as the state’s black market will continue to be the more convenient and cost-effective option for large groups of consumers.

Customers who choose to buy from a licensed rec store may face long lines and high prices – perhaps keeping them from making a return visit.

Eli McVey can be reached at