CHARLESTON — Being able to buy recreational cannabis products in Charleston is something new and it's a bit of a new shopping experience for customers when they visit the store where they're sold.
The store offers about 300 different types of cannabis products but they're not setting on shelves for customers to peruse. Instead, they'll see mostly staff waiting at a counter in front of video screens displaying the products offered.
Customers wait in line in an area that allows for social distancing and the only physical presence of the products is in a small display case.
The sales process, in part, is a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But it's also to help people be more comfortable learning about recreational cannabis products, said David Spreckman, retail marketing director of the company that operates the store.
"We want it to be a relaxing, enjoyable experience," he said of the Zen Leaf store that opened at 909 Lincoln Ave. earlier this week.
The store is located in the building that used to be a Family Video store, locating there after the city of Charleston approved a recreational cannabis business ordinance and issued the company a building permit earlier this year.
The Charleston dispensary is the first to open in the area following the state of Illinois' approval of recreational cannabis sales and use.
Illinois residents age 21 and over may possess up to 30 grams or about 1 ounce of flower (roughly as much as an adult can hold in cupped hands), 5 grams of cannabis concentrate, or 500 milligrams of THC — the chemical that gets users high — in a cannabis-infused product such as gummies and other candy, tinctures and lotions. Adult visitors to the state may possess up to 15 grams of marijuana.
The Mattoon City Council approved a cannabis sales ordinance on June 2. City Administrator Kyle Gill said a couple of cannabis-related businesses have since inquired about possibly opening in Mattoon, but neither has moved forward yet with development plans.
Spreckman said the Charleston store was set up with capacity and social distancing requirements, as well as customer convenience, in mind.
There are kiosks in the store that customers can use to pre-order their purchases to save time at the customer service counter.
Store staff are still available to help people learn about products with which they might not have been familiar before, he added.
Those include 56 varieties of flower buds for smoking but there are also edibles and other products that differ from what many likely see as the traditional items for cannabis use.
There are also balms for topical application for use for pain relief that Spreckman said some people who don't want to smoke the product might prefer.
He also assured those concerned about the availability of cannabis and any possible resulting drug abuse to remember the "tremendous" medical value and other benefits.
There was once the concept that cannabis was a "gateway" to other drug use but "we tend to think of it as an exit drug," Spreckman said. Cannabis use has helped some pain sufferers "syphon off" from addictive painkillers, he said.
The store opened on Wednesday and general manager Brett Followell said "we had a great turnout."
Followell said the store employs about 30 people, mostly customer consultants.
The store's hours are 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. The phone number is (217) 284-6077.