Old Rainforest Cafe site in River North gets OK from Chicago zoning board for weed dispensary

Plans for a cannabis dispensary at the former Rainforest Cafe in River North got a green light from the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals early Saturday.

The board heard the case for four hours, then voted 3-1 in favor of the application after reconvening around 12:45 a.m. Saturday following a closed session.

Robert Brown, a neighborhood resident, had asked the board to reject the dispensary’s application, questioning Progressive Treatment Solutions’ role in its partnership with BioPharm to take over the former restaurant site at 605 N. Clark St.

Brown questioned the partners’ eligibility under state law as a social equity firm — the qualifying factor allowing the companies to open a Consume brand dispensary in River North, an area that’s already packed with weed shops.

Illinois law bars dispensaries from opening within 1,500 feet of an existing weed shop except in the case of ownership by a social equity applicant, a legislative effort to increase minority ownership in the booming industry. Four dispensaries are now operating within 1,500 feet of the proposed shop, and PTS, which initially proposed the plan on its own, without partners, didn’t qualify as a social equity firm.


The company eventually teamed up with BioPharm, a social equity firm that was awarded a conditional license in a state-run lottery. BioPharm qualifies as a social equity firm because chief operating officer Kevin Munroe’s father, Michael Munroe, who did not attend Friday’s meeting, had a misdemeanor marijuana conviction in the 1970s.

Brown argued it would set an "incredibly dangerous precedent" for non-social equity applicants to "try and find loopholes in the state and city rules to qualify them as social equity licensees."

Mara Georges, the former top City Hall lawyer who is representing both cannabis companies, pointed to an Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation advisory notice earlier this year that said social equity applicants can have a conditional management agreement with a non-social equity applicant.

Three other people who live near the Rainforest Cafe site also objected to the proposal largely on the grounds there are "too many" dispensaries already in River North and also expressed concerns about crime in the affluent neighborhood.

Terry Peterson, the chief executive officer of PTS, said $7 million to $10 million will be put into renovations of the building, and the dispensary will have 36 full-time employees and 19 part-timers, plus four security guards, including having one present around the clock.