by Long Hwa-shu
A newly-opened store in Highland Park sells stuff until recently was—shhhhh—illegal.
Elevele at 1460 Old Skokie Road is a specialty dispensary licensed by Illinois to sell medical marijuana products only to patients with state-issued registry identification cards. It opened its doors on Wednesday.
“This is a highly regulated and structured business. It is very restrictive,” said Andy Hunt, a retired futures trader, who founded the business with his wife Veronica, a former restauranteur, because “it was a good opportunity for us.” The couple lives in Lake Forest.
The medical marijuana products are used for treating symptoms and conditions for among others cancer, multiple sclerosis, epileptic seizures, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s disease and spinal injury and pains.
Elevele plans to carry more than 20 products. They come in various forms including flowers, oils and even candies and brownies. By law, the dispensary can only procure products from state-authorized marijuana growers and product manufacturers in Illinois.
Hunt, who is chief executive officer, stressed they can only be sold to card-carrying patients who had to go through background checking and finger-printing.
“We are not doctors and we can’t tell what a patient should buy,” he said, adding, “A typical patient is a 51-year-old woman suffering from among others cancer, MS., Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and glaucoma.” There are more women patients than men, according to him.
“On average, each patient spends about $375 a month. Potentially, we’ll have 200 to 300 patients by the end of the year,” said Hunt, 53, who was born in Chicago and went to Loyola University where he studied history, economics and finances. For 32 years, he worked as a broker and trader at the Chicago Board of Trade for 32 years beginning in his career when he was 20.
“It was stressful but it allowed me to retire when I was 51,” he said of his frenetic days as a trader shouting orders for customers on the trading floor.
“But I’ve never retired,” he added succinctly.
Veronica, his wife, he took pride to mention, was an innovator, reputed to be the first to operate a food truck in Chicago with her brother, a chef, selling tortillas, before food trucks became popular. She eventually owned three restaurants and four food trucks in the Loop. The couple has three girls and a boy, ranging in ages from 9 to 17.
Hunt said they got into the medical marijuana business after someone talked him into it as an investment.
“I ended up as the only investor. If someone had suggested me to go into this business 10 years ago I would have laughed at it,” said he.
About Elevele, the business name which sounds French, Hunt acknowledged it is “a made-up word,” meaning broadly that patients have to find their comfort level in the purchase and use of medical marijuana products.
“I had to hire a consultant on brand names and they did some research and came up with the name,” he said.
Hunt said it took them 18 months between planning and opening the dispensary, including applying for a license from the state, a special zoning permit from Highland Park and the remodeling of the 2,400-square-foot store inside and out. The result is a place, laid out with reception, waiting and patient consulting rooms with a pharmacy that sparkles with brightness, efficiency and friendliness.
“I had to hire a designer and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to remodel it,” said Hunt, pointing out that he located it in Highland Park because it is an affluent community where people have more disposable income. The location off busy Route 41 is convenient, he said.
The dispensary employs five people including one who is also a patient. “When we interviewed job candidates, what we were looking for were people with compassion and empathy,’’ said Hunt.
Brian Topping, the general manager, is a former Marine sergeant who served in the Iraqi War. He said he has a sister who recovered with the use of marijuana, after suffering severe pain caused by a motorcycle accident. He described it as a family tragedy with a happy ending.
Elizabeth Justas, a patient care representative, called her job “a good fit for me.” She said she has a friend who is disabled and uses medical marijuana. A botanist with a B.S. degree from Northern Illinois University, Justas is working toward her master’s degree at the University of Illinois.
Looking back, Hunt said he would do it again because the dispensary truly serves patients in need of these products.
“They are grateful that now they can buy medical marijuana legally instead of getting it illegally,” he said, adding, “The fact the business is so strictly regulated allows us to do it with good conscience.”
The first patient at Elevele
Andrea Rosengarden of Highland Park became the first customer at Elevele, a state-authorized dispensary of marijuana products.
“I feel very happy that they have legalized marijuana due to the fact that people with cancer and other illnesses need it,” said she with a smile as was making a purchase at the dispensary at 1460 Old Skokie Road in Highland Park.
“It’s about time,” she added.
Rosengarden, 56, said she has multiple myeloma, a bone morrow cancer. While it is in remission, she needs the medication to relieve her from pain, nausea and anxiety.
She said she used to go to a dispensary in Evanston. “This is much more convenient for me since I live nearby,” she said, adding that she would be a regular customer. -Long Hwa-shu