When marijuana dispensaries open their doors to recreational customers on Jan. 1, there won't be jars of buds lined up on shelves or rolled joints under glass countertops.

Instead, shopping at a dispensary likely will be a cross between a trip to the pharmacy and shopping at an Apple store. Some customers will even be able to order online and pick up their products in store, cutting down on wait time.

At FloraMedex medical dispensary in Elmwood Park recently, 19-year-old medical cannabis patient Alec Barber was in and out with a white paper bag of marijuana products in about 20 minutes.

"Most of the time, I go on my phone and look at the daily menu," he said, standing in line to check out. "I make it easier for them."

A new measure legalizing recreational cannabis will allow the state's 55 medical dispensaries to apply to sell recreational marijuana. The dispensaries also can apply to open a second location. That means more than 100 dispensaries could be selling marijuana by the beginning of next year, pending a signature from Gov. J.B. Pritzker that officially legalizes recreational weed use.

Medical dispensaries are renovating their spaces, ramping up technology and streamlining processes to serve more customers. And although they currently serve only patients with a medical marijuana card, the sales process today likely will be similar to what recreational users experience next year.

FloraMedex, which is owned by Chicago-based marijuana company Cresco Labs, recently upgraded the computer systems that patients use to review product options.

The touch-screen computers at FloraMedex let customers look through the menu of available products, learn about the THC content in each strain and peruse flavor profiles.

Tapping on a picture of a certain type of joint on the screen might tell a customer that it has an earthy, chemical flavor, for example, and how relaxed or hungry it was likely to make you feel.

Barber, who lives in the nearby Belmont Cragin neighborhood, also likes to ask the dispensary workers about the likely effects. He usually visits the dispensary a couple of times a week for products to treat his back and knee pain. Before his visit Thursday he checked what was available on the dispensary's website.

Once he was through the check-in process and past security at the dispensary, he sat down in front of one of eight touch-screen computers affixed to tables. Gabe Vale, agent-in-charge at the dispensary, talked him through some of the options.

"I want to check out this one," Barber said, touching the screen.

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"That one is really good for its potency," Vale responded. "It's really good if you have chest pain, feet pain."

Though Illinois lawmakers could still make changes in how dispensaries must operate under the recreational marijuana law, Vale said he expects the buying process to stay largely the same.

There is a shelf at FloraMedex displaying empty product packaging -- glass containers for flower buds or boxes for infused dark chocolate almond toffee. Customers can pick up the packages and read the descriptions, but the product is kept in a vault behind the counter. Workers retrieve the product after a patient has made a purchase, a process that will continue when recreational sales begin.

Dispensaries expect to spend time and resources teaching new customers about the products, which go far beyond the smokeable weed that dominates the black market. There are precisely dosed chocolates, gummies and other edibles, patches that dispense cannabinoids right into the skin, concentrates that can be consumed via vape and more.

"People that have bought legal cannabis before probably have only bought flower," said Cresco spokesman Jason Erkes. "Education is a key part of the whole product."

Medical consumers usually gravitate toward the flower -- what most people know as marijuana -- during their first visits, Vale said. It's what people know and it's the consumption method that the body reacts to the quickest. Soon they try edibles, which are easy to consume, and later migrate to the concentrates. Vale said he expects recreational customers will take the same path.

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All marijuana product types are expected to see triple-digit growth in the recreational marijuana market over the next five years, according to Chicago-based cannabis research firm Brightfield Group. But growth among concentrates, edibles and other products like tinctures, capsules or topicals are expected to outpace the growth of flower.

Dennis Mae, another patient at the dispensary, bought some pre-rolled joints and fruit-flavored gummies Thursday. He usually places his order online and picks it up, but this time he knew what he wanted without looking online.

"Because they know me so well, I said, 'Look up last week's order and give me exactly what I got but make these changes,'" said Mae, after taking money out of the ATM next to the checkout counter to make his purchase.

The Melrose Park resident has been coming to the dispensary since the beginning of the year, and is starting to learn what products work best for his recent onset of epilepsy, he said.

"I grew up in the 60s, so I'm no stranger, but after an extensive learning bend ... it has really helped," he said. "They walked me through it."


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