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Leading The Sway

Community Leaders Art Johnston and Pep Pena and Their Partners Edie Moore and Kevin Hauswirth Talk

About Their New Marijuana Dispensary.

By Rick Karlin

More than five decades ago, two men walked into a bar; a teacher from a working-class neighborhood,

and a Cuban refugee turned bartender. They fell in love and together opened what would

become an iconic bar, co-founded an LGBTQ+ rights organization, and

sparked a passion that helped establish a queer neighborhood.

Later in life, they met a woman, a Black veteran fighting for cannabis legalization and social equity. A love for good weed and a flare for fiery activism made for a match like no other. Together, they’ve created a new space for their communities – SWAY, a dispensary on Halsted that’s rooted in the values that drive them in love and life. SWAY is the first queer – and BIPOC-owned dispensary in the state.

The owners, Art Johnston and Pepin Pena from Sidetrack and their

partner Edie Moore, the first Executive Director of Chicago NORML (National Organization for

the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and co-founder and Principal Officer of SWAY dispensaries, along with investor Kevin Hauswirth, readily admit that it is built on the strong, sassy shoulders of those who camebefore. The queer rule-breakers who fought for medicinal weed as a remedy against HIV. The Black and Brown activists who broke down barriers to weed, despite bearing the

brunt of over-criminalization and prosecution. It is part of a community that doesn’t wait around

for spaces to be created for us. We kick the doors down our own damn selves. Good thing we always wear our door-kicking shoes. SWAY is a come-as-you-are, come-as-you’ve-always-wanted-to be

kind of place. It’s for the neighborhood, for the visitors, for the first-timers, and the everydayers.

It’s not just a dispensary or a store, it’s a continuation of a long history of our communities fighting

for cannabis equity and the right to love freely. SWAY is working to keep queer enclaves queer and morereflective of the world we want to live in. So, if you’re not into it, that’s fine, it’s not for you, but if you are, you’re welcome. Oh, and they sell weed. Really, good weed.

Rick Karlin: First, congratulations on opening SWAY. Perhaps the initial question on everyone’s lips is, “Why?” Didn’t you have enough to keep you busy at Sidetrack?

SWAY: Some 40 years ago, Pep turned to me and said “wouldn’t it be great if we could sell weed

instead of booze.” We laughed and never thought anything of it… until legalization passed in Illinois. SWAYis the logical next step for the work we’ve tried to do for years for justice, equity, and vibrant communities. Northalsted is one of the few remaining queer enclaves in the country. Our survival depends on owning our own spaces.

R.K: Your website and the store’s décor, displays information on

heroes in our communities’ histories. Why was that important

to you?

SWAY: The price our communities paid for legal weed was too high a cost. For LGBTQ folks, cannabis

was medicine helping those suffering from AIDS. But for communities of color, the toll of racist policies and overcriminalization continues to thisday. Recognizing those who have come before us and those

doing the work today is the only reason we’re where we are now.

R.K: SWAY is one of the few businesses on Northalsted to be owned by a conglomerate

of LGBT, BIPOC, andveterans. And your staff is representative of that samepopulation. Why is that

important to you?

SWAY: The SWAY team is representative of the communities we share and hope to serve. We want tocreate spaces that are reflective of the world we want to live in. And one thing that really links

the owners together is a shared vision for what progress looks like.

R.K: How much pushback did you face from the city and/or the neighborhood when you proposed opening a dispensary?

SWAY: The neighborhood could not have been more supportive, and I’m still blown away by the warm

welcome we’re getting from our neighbors. When we hosted a community meeting, someone stood

up and expressed how excited they are to have a space where they can walk in and feel safe regardless of who they are or how they look. We try every day to live up to that.

R.K: SWAY takes the place of the old Town Hall Pub, which was a sort of landmark until it closed during the COVID pandemic. While the new place looks fantastic (Full disclosure, the writer’s brother-inlaw’s construction company built the dispensary), will we see anything harkening back to Town


SWAY: We were also saddened to hear about Bill’s passing and are so grateful to MaryJo (his widow)

wanting to honor Town Hall by creating a new welcoming space in the community. Aside from the

iconic exposed brick and paneled roof, we hope to honor Town Hall’s

legacy of hospitality and a come-asyou-are atmosphere… and we may just have a few other ideas brewing.Stay tuned.

RK: Do you see a chain of SWAY

dispensaries opening, or will this

one location expand to

incorporate the entire block, a la


SWAY: Our friend and business partner, Edie Moore, has wonderful plans for a second SWAY in her

South Shore neighborhood. She has been a longtime advocate for access to safe, legal cannabis no matter where you live. While she’ll certainly design the space to reflect and respect the local community, our shared values of representation, advocacy and hospitality will shine through.

R.K: Finally, do you ever foresee

the day when there are

marijuana bars?

SWAY: When folks can come in and order an Animal Face prerolled or an Afghani Skunk blunt,

and maybe watch a show tune?Forty years ago, we never dreamed of walking into a shop to

buy weed legally... so who knows what other dreams could come true?! In the meantime, we’ll be

making infused cocktails at home!

SWAY is located at 3340 N

Halsted. Visit them online at


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