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First of LGBTQ+-owned dispensaries set to open in Northalsted
By Tatiana Walk-Morris
2024-04-01

This article shared 15820 times since Mon Apr 1, 2024
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Since 1970, 3340 N Halsted St. had been the home of the Townhall Pub, the beloved cash-only dive bar known for its tasty drinks and friendly staff. But after Townhall's former owner William Bucholtz passed away from COVID-19 in 2021, the pub closed down. Now, about three years later, a new business is set to open the space again for business—this time as a cannabis dispensary.

In the coming weeks, the Sway dispensary will become a new cannabis dispensary co-owned by entrepreneur Kevin Hauswirth (a one-time Windy City Times 30 Under 30 honoree), LGBTQ+ activists (and Sidetrack owners) Art Johnston and Jose "Pepe" Peña, cannabis policy advocate Edie Moore and other co-owners. Located in the heart of Northalsted, the Sway dispensary will be the first of three new locations, Moore told Windy City Times.

Peña planted the seed for a cannabis dispensary decades ago, Johnston recalled in an interview with Windy City Times owner Tracy Baim.

"I remember clearly in 1973," Johnston said. "One day Pep said to me, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could make a living selling marijuana rather than alcohol?' He was a bartender, and we both laughed at that. And now here we are all these years later.

Hauswirth met Johnston and Peña doing political and LGBTQ organizing. He went on to produce a documentary about the two iconic LGBTQ+ activists, which debuted in 2021. Moore and Hauswirth met working on social equity advocacy around the passage of Illinois cannabis legalization law. Moore who founded the first chapter of the cannabis policy and advocacy group Chicago NORML, said Hauswirth introduced her to Peña and Johnston.

Upon meeting them, Moore recalled that she "fell in love with Art and Pepe and their story, and we connected on so many levels. Not only about cannabis wellness, but also activism…I was just so enamored by how long he had been fighting for gay rights, and it just spoke to me."

The co-owners named the dispensary Sway as a nod to both dancing when in a good mood and the influence that the LGBTQ+ community has over culture and politics, Hauswirth said. He added, "Sway kind of encapsulates both sort of the experience and the fun, but also it recognizes the shoulders that we stand on."

Though the company applied for licensing after cannabis was legalized in the state, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the process of securing the authorization, Hauswirth said.

Sway stands across the street from Sidetrack. Johnston and Peña chose that location for the first dispensary to contribute to the area's status as a "queer enclave," Hauswirth recalled.

During a community meeting before its upcoming opening, one resident told Hauswirth that having the dispensary nearby would allow them to safely access cannabis within the community.

Hauswirth said, "One of the ways that we preserve our own spaces is by owning our own spaces—queer ownership, BIPOC ownership, ownership that represents the communities that we are in, and that we want to participate in."

While the company's first dispensary will open up in the Northalsted area, Moore says finding spots for the other two locations has been challenging. The lack of cannabis dispensaries on the city's Southeast side "has been a real thorn in my side, because that's where I'm from, that's where I live, that's where I grew up," Moore said, adding that stigma of cannabis use remains a barrier to creating equitable access to legal cannabis. Moore declined to say where the other two locations might be located.

"Some of these Black communities are just not very welcoming to this type of business, and I've been fighting that since 2015," Moore said. "It's an educational thing for me. Folks need to understand that this is about wellness. It's not always about getting high. Sometimes it is, but most of the time, for me, it's not."

The company plans to source its cannabis from as many LGBTQ+, BIPOC and women-owned businesses as possible, but the limited number of suppliers of underrepresented backgrounds remains a challenge, Hauswirth said. Moore said Sway plans to hire about 16 to 20 employees for each location.

The opening marks the long-overdue diversification of the cannabis industry. Reflecting on the period prior to cannabis legalization in Illinois, Hauswirth noted cannabis criminalization led to the incarceration of many Black and Brown people, and the prohibition of access for people who sought the substance to help people with HIV and AIDS. Once the market began to open up in the state, it remained challenging to get licensing for the business, which led to the industry full of mostly white, wealthy and straight cannabis business owners.

Given that history, "There is something very special about being queer-owned and BIPOC-owned in an industry that means so much more to our communities and trying to do our little part of changing the face of the industry," Hauswirth said.

Though the state has attempted to shepard underrepresented business owners into the industry, those efforts have not turned out as planned, Johnston said. Sway dispensary is "majority BIPOC, gay, Black—we're completely minority owned and run environment," he said.

"Many of the social equity winners of licenses were then unable to find any capital, and have had to give up. And it's a sad story that so much of what was meant to be quite wonderful, has not turned out that way," Johnston said. "However, we have pushed and pushed and pushed. It's taken three or four years longer than any of us thought, and a couple of million dollars more than any of us thought, but we are within a couple of weeks of opening a cannabis dispensary in one of the gay sections of Chicago on North Halsted Street."

Moore was surprised at a community meeting to hear that residents were excited to have the dispensary in the area, because they hadn't been so comfortable with other legal cannabis dispensaries previously.

"I intend to make sure that not only the queer folk, but especially the queer folk, feel welcomed and comfortable in our space, because…that's part of who our founders are," Moore said. "As the business opens the other two locations, it's still going to be very inclusive of the neighborhood, wherever it ends up."


This article shared 15820 times since Mon Apr 1, 2024
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