NORTHALSTED — A Black- and gay-owned weed dispensary coming to Northalsted now has a name and approval from a key city panel.
The dispensary, replacing the former Town Hall Pub at 3340 N. Halsted St., will be named Sway, after a new weed company founded by local business and civil rights leaders Art Johnston and Jose Pepé Peña and cannabis social equity advocate Edie Moore.
The Zoning Board of Appeals approved a special-use permit for the dispensary during its meeting Friday. The buildout to convert the old dive bar, which closed in 2021 after the owner’s death, into a dispensary is underway.
“We’re grateful for the overwhelming support of our community and neighbors as we move one step closer to opening a successful, inclusive dispensary,” Peña said. “Together, we’re building a safe, welcoming space that will positively contribute to the future of one of the country’s few remaining queer enclaves.”
The dispensary will be the first to open in the Northalsted LGBTQ district. It is across the street from Sidetrack, the sprawling gay bar that Johnston and Peña founded in 1982 as a 900-square-foot hole in the wall.
The Town Hall Pub sign will have to come down, but much of the building’s facade will remain the same, co-owner Kevin Hauswirth said during a March community meeting. Other changes include using the space’s north door as an entrance instead of the south door, making the front windows larger to allow more sunlight into the lobby and blacking out the windows, which is required of all dispensaries by state law.
Inside, the dispensary is broken into three sections: a lobby, a sales floor and the secure, employees-only section, Hauswirth said.
In the lobby, security guards will check all customers’ IDs, and staffers will ask people to wait if the sales floor is at capacity, Hauswirth said. Shoppers will be encouraged to place orders on their phones if the line is backed up.
The second room, the sales floor, will have some products on display along the walls and cases in the center, Hauswirth said. These displays can be removed on high-volume days or during the neighborhood’s street festivals to allow more people into the queue.
The sales floor also has registers where people can pick up their orders and pay in cash or debit card, an ATM and a customer restroom, Hauswirth said.
Only employees will be allowed in the back area, which contains the vault, a garage for deliveries, a break room and staff restrooms, Hauswirth said.
“The whole area is secure,” Hauswirth said. “So deliveries will come into the garage, where we’ll have a semi-secure space. It will come straight into the vault, and once you order your product, an employee will pass it through a window from the vault to the cashier and into your happy hands.”
Customers will leave through the space’s southern door, Hauswirth said.
Alderman-elect Bennett Lawson, who said in March current Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) “doesn’t see an issue” with the proposal, sent a letter of support saying “thriving, inclusive local businesses are essential to the continued success of Northalsted as a progressive, safe haven in Chicago.”
Lawson, Tunney’s long-time chief of staff, will begin as alderman next month.
Sen. Sara Feigenholtz and Rep. Ann Williams also supported the project.
Kevin Barbeau, executive director of the Northalsted Business Alliance, said the dispensary will “bring additional visitors to the neighborhood, which benefits other businesses located here and the whole city of Chicago as a whole.”
Brainstorming for the dispensary started “many years ago” as a way to ensure the future viability of the Northalsted business district, which is one of the country’s largest LGBTQ enclaves, Johnston said during the March community meeting.
“Around the country, the gay districts are disappearing rapidly, and we are probably one of the single most vibrant gay districts left in the United States,” Johnston said. “Overall, our goal is to think of the things we could be doing now to ensure the future, and we see cannabis as one of those additions to the street that will help maintain its viability.”
Johnston is also co-founder of Equality Illinois, the oldest and largest LGBTQ rights organization in the state. His husband, Peña, has worked in Chicago’s gay bar scene since 1970 after fleeing from Cuba several years earlier.
Moore, who got her start as an advocate for cannabis policy reform when her mother started seeking medical cannabis in 2016, is co-founder and first executive director of Chicago’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and co-founder of the Illinois Minority Cannabis Business Owners Association.
Moore has been an outspoken advocate for criminal justice and Black and Brown ownership of cannabis businesses.
“The War on Drugs disproportionately impacted communities of color, a reality that is even more dire for LGBTQ people of color,” Moore previously said in a statement. “Partnering with my friends and allies, Art and Pep, brings together our shared commitment to equity, a passion for safe and accessible cannabis and a recognition of a need for more safe spaces in Chicago, especially for queer folks and people of color.”
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