Matthew Brewer: Shepherding ‘grasshoppers’ through Illinois cannabis industry

Clare Lane: When Illinois legalized recreational cannabis, officials decided part of the law should help people affected by prior convictions start their own marijuana businesses. This is part of the state’s so called Social Equity program. The idea is to give people affected by past drug policies a chance to be part of the cannabis industry, but it hasn’t been easy for Black and brown companies to open up cannabis shops. One in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood will forever hold the distinction of being the state’s first black independently owned Dispensary. WBEZ’s Alex Degman takes us there

Alex Degman: Tucked inside a beautiful 1920s Stone Bank building on Milwaukee Avenue just south of Logan Square Park sits a club that doesn’t scream cannabis. That’s on purpose. Co-owner, Matthew Brewer thinks a lot of dispensaries right now feel very transactional. 

Matthew Brewer: I describe it more like cashing a check at a currency exchange.

Alex Degman: That’s not the vibe of the Grasshopper Club.

Matthew Brewer: This is intended to be more like ordering a drink at your favorite bar,

Alex Degman: Walking in you’re treated to a mural by Pilsen artist Tubs incorporating the Grasshopper logo, and across the room is a shelf of curated memorabilia including a Virgil Abloh sneaker and a basketball signed by the ‘93 Bulls.

Matthew Brewer: So the idea of it all is to create this ambience, the display cases of curation.

Alex Degman: And there is an actual bar. There is no alcohol, but they use it as a cozy space for cancer years consultations. Yes, that is a play on cannabis and concierge. 

Matthew Brewer: We had a group of four women. They were all in their 70s, didn’t have a lot of experience with cannabis. But wanted to come in and learn.

Alex Degman:  He says if you think of the Grasshopper Club as – quote – “just another place to buy weed,” then he’s failed. Brewer, who’s an attorney full time and a Chicago Housing Authority commissioner, never used cannabis. His older brother Chuck was arrested more than once for possession. Matt, Chuck and their mother Dianne all run the shop together. People like Matt and his family are who lawmakers thought of when they created the social equity parameters in the state’s cannabis law. The majority of folks charged with cannabis offenses are Black and brown, yet as the laws governing cannabis started to change – those same people represent a tiny fraction of ownership in the overall industry. Brewer was born and raised on the South Side at 74th and Calumet, attending Beasley Elementary and Mount Carmel High School. At a young age, his family was crushed when his father died of a drug overdose.

Matthew Brewer: Me, my mother and brother, through all the adversity that the three of us have been through we’ve just become a very close knit unit. We’re all, like, super connected. You know, it’s implicit trust and love.

Alex Degman: Brewer started looking into the industry in 2014, during the medical marijuana pilot program. In 2021, he won a recreational dispensary license to start building something for his family. He took a risk by building out while the licensing process was tied up in court, knowing that he could lose everything. But it paid off.

Matthew Brewer: Building a dispensary is very tough. The level of compliance required, the level of technicality, I mean I could go down the line. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And not to mention by the way all the capital requirements, it’s a very difficult thing to do.

Alex Degman: And *that’s* part of the reason social equity dispensaries are slow to open. Brewer calls it a blessing to be able to run his family business without help from one of the major multi-state cannabis operators like Cresco, Verano or Curaleaf. He and his family have put up all the money they’ve needed so far without any outside investment, but as he eyes a South Loop dispensary opening this summer he says he’s starting to look for partners. Brewer named the business grasshopper because it represents learning and exploration. As the first Black, independently owned cannabis shop in Illinois, he’s fielding questions from people who want to get started. In essence, they’re the grasshoppers. Alex Degman, WBEZ News.

WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.

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