The Pass brand represents the mountain passes in which we live, it represents permission that we’ve been given a pass to consume. It represents passing from one state to another, it represents communal sharing, and community:
‘pass the joint.’
Michael Cohen is co-founder of The Pass, a marijuana dispensary located in Sheffield, Massachusetts, the closest such local weed dispensary to NYC.
Together with the other co-founder, Chris Weld, Michael has set up the local weed dispensary right on the borders of New York and Connecticut, which has recently opened up its doors to the public.
Located in the Berkshires right off of a major road, The Pass represents a changing landscape. In the middle of a lush valley home to farmers, to the naked eye, The Pass is essentially just another business on the side of the road.
But once we turned left into the parking lot and walked through the front doors, we understood it was anything but.
What we found on the property was two driven founders, who sensed an opportunity in a nascent industry and are trying to take full advantage of that emerging goldmine.
We found a warm, sunny setting conducive to optimizing workflow, and a friendly and motivated team, that seemed happy to be working in an environment full of passion. And in some cases, an environment that allows them to legally work with a plant that they’d been surrounded by for much of their lives.
The Pass’s Inception
Both Michael and Chris live in the Berkshires, a rural region in the mountains of Western Massachusetts.
“We live in the Southern Berkshires in Great Barrington (around 10,000 people), and our kids go to school together,” explains Chris.
“We knew each other for years before we decided to jump into business together.”
Sheffield, home of The Pass‘ agricultural plant, manufacturing station, and local weed dispensary, is a right-to-farm town, meaning there are still a lot of active farmers in the community. With support from the town, Michael and Chris started envisioning The Pass roughly three years ago and incorporated in January of 2018.
With Chris having a background in farming and manufacturing, and Michael the marketing guru, as Chris puts it, “[our components] compliment each other well.”
Michael explained that he had the good fortune of graduating business school when the internet was starting, and started one of the first internet ad-buying agencies in 1996.
“[I] worked seven days a week for three years, but that was an industry that didn’t exist when I started. It was so booming when I was done, that [I] felt like part of some kind of exclusive club,” Michael details.
“This is the future of marketing,” he would tell people, though his wisdom often fell on deaf ears. Still, he sees major similarities between the internet industry in 1996 and the cannabis industry in Massachusetts in 2020.
“I had the opportunity to be an entrepreneur in a booming industry, and I feel like there’s a lot of parallels. The complexities, the government oversight, the taxes…”
Michael continued, “The challenges are pretty significant, but I think, more than anything, as it relates to this business, we’ve been able to attract people who are really passionate about cannabis.”
The passion on the job site is apparent when walking through, just as it is in the refinement of The Pass‘ products.
In addition to the delectable strains and products the local weed dispensary offers such as Papaya Punch and Sled Dawg, The Pass also presents to customers The Berkshire High Guide, a map of the best places to go and things to do in The Berkshires.
A Local weed Dispensary rooted in the Berkshires Community
Echoing each other’s sentiments, Michael and Chris explain that the guide is not about where to go to get stoned or even where to go when you’re stoned. It is a service for the traveler, in town for the day or weekend, who wants to explore and get a touch of Berkshire culture.
Michael explains how he believes it is representative of the cannabis value proposition, where weed is consumed intelligently, and not about “getting fucked up, being idiots.”
For some it may be, he propounds, but,
“Cannabis benefits people for inspiration, for relaxation, [it] enables you to appreciate nature. It enables people to live in the moment, and when you’re in the Berkshires… the Berkshires are so much about coming back to nature, coming back to your family, coming back to yourself. This is a place where people go to get away from work. So we feel like the cannabis experience and the Berkshires really go hand in hand.”
Driving through the fields, mountains to the side, even walking up to the greenhouse where we spoke with Michael and Chris, we saw where they were coming from.
Cannabis, especially where one knows exactly what they’re getting, allows for so much more than a quick high. It is a breath of fresh air, a chance to put things into proper perspective, an ability to tap into one’s inner self.
“The Berkshires have a long history… going back to the Native Americans, there was a strong belief that even the waters around here were therapeutic. There’s a really wonderful healing property about the Berkshires. [And] we have a lot of culture [here],” Chris told me.
Michael agreed, citing major cultural institutions nearby like Mass Moca and Kripalu… world class restaurants, all in addition to the mountains, lakes, rivers, streams, farms, and wildlife always present. It is no wonder The Pass‘ site states: “At the intersection of nature + culture.”
Still, a farming town at its core, with a mountainous topography, Sheffield and the Berkshires are not on the shortlist for places booming with jobs.
“The Berkshires [are] a beautiful place to raise a family… [they’re] a hard place to make a living,” bluntly explains Michael.
The Pass, while meant to be lucrative for the two founders and investors, also offers profitable opportunities for the town and its people.
Right now The Pass employs 47 people, moving to 60 quickly, with a full range of career opportunities for people in agriculture, manufacturing, retail, brand operations management, finance, and human resources. “It’s the full gamut,” Michael says.
The Pass strives to hire a diverse group of workers, though that is easier said than done in a farm town in the middle of a bunch of cornfields. Still, 35 percent of the team is “technically diverse,” their hiring plan includes sensitivity education, and in Michael’s words, “we want to do more.”
“We want to have a team that represents the full range of cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, because we think that the cannabis experience is beneficial and represents the full range of experience for a full range of type of people…”
“This is a really big and complicated business, so it’s just so exciting to be able to bring people on, and build a team,” says Michael.
“The success of your business is wholly dependent upon your people, and not just hiring people who have specific skill sets, but hiring people who have a positive disposition. We want to hire people who have good energy, we want to hire nice people, and it’s just a real joy to be able to extend a job opportunity for someone to become a member of our team,” says Michael.
One of those people is the Head of Grow at The Pass, Pete.
We got the chance to speak with Pete during our brief visit to the local weed dispensary, and in front of his lavish and long-runway of plants, he giddily explained his role in cultivating the marijuana.
“A misconception about the cannabis industry is that everyone’s here just getting stoned all the time. But at the end of the day, this is just like any other job. You need to maintain the professionalism, and me as a cultivator, I think it’s part of my job to break the stigma.”
Pete used to work as a cultivator in Maine, until he was contacted by a mutual associate of Michael and Chris’. The Fall of 2018, he came down to speak with them, and discussed the opportunity and project.
Five months later, he moved down to the Berkshires full time and hit the ground running.
Pete explains that when he first started at The Pass, the grounds were completely bare. There wasn’t even a foundation on the greenhouse. The work everyone did to create such a functioning and multifaceted operation is nothing short of wildly impressive.
The passion that Michael talked about in The Pass‘ workers, and the joy in hiring people like that, was embodied by Pete. Here is a guy in love with what he does.
“The really fun thing about cannabis right now is there are so many genetics out there and so many new strains out there that are continually coming out.”
Papaya Punch, one of The Pass‘ most recent strains, is one he is most proud of, as it has a “unique terpene profile” and is the highest THC percentage strain they’ve grown.
The ability to have the greenhouse on site where customers pick up the products should not be undersold. There is no buffer period, no truck that has to ship the plants hours away to the dispensary. To know exactly what is going in the product that you’re consuming, and where it is coming from; that is special.
“The Farm to Label ideology is one of the most exciting things about The Pass. You actually are able to go up front and purchase cannabis that was grown right here on site. Our customers, they know that when they’re in line, they’re gonna be buying something that was produced right there in the building right behind them,” passionately says Pete.
As exuberant as Pete was, he was just as confident in his process and ability. I asked him what advice he would give an aspiring grower.
“I think getting the basic understanding of plants in general is the best foundation that anyone can get before they start growing. Start growing tomatoes, start growing whatever vegetables you actually like to eat at home, and understand your feeding, your watering, deficiency systemologies and getting to the harvest. I think once you get just that basic base, it translates into cannabis really well, and I always really recommend that people just start growing something.”
Michael is so happy with the team that they’ve built in Sheffield. As he said, it’s crucial that they build a community, and that the team is really connected, both professionally and personally.
“I think a lot of times those personal bonds enable you to transcend problems in business.”
Specifically remarking on the positive and ambitious workers that were hired, Michael says:
“Some companies, you have people where it’s not their dream job to be there. For us, most of the people here are so psyched to be working in this industry and working for a company that actually cares about its people.”
Everyone, from the marketing side, to growing, to production, was driven in their tasks during the day.
One of the workers, the name of whom I did not receive and is not especially important, explained his journey with cannabis in college years back, and now his delight in being able to work with the plant in an official and legal capacity.
His candid responses and stories were something I wished I picked up on audio, but nonetheless, illustrated the arbitrary nature of the cannabis industry.
What was once illegal, is now in many places not. Furthermore, it can turn a profit. This points to a question of justice reform in terms of marijuana legislation, and freeing prisoners (largely of color) locked up in the past for possession of marijuana.
Equal Opportunity in the Cannabis Sphere
The Pass recently joined The Floret Coalition from Broccoli Magazine, focused on anti-racist support and efforts in the cannabis industry. Broccoli Mag’s site states:
“The Floret Coalition is an anti-racist collective of small businesses in the cannabis and cannabis-adjacent space supporting and funding equity-oriented actions via monthly donations and social campaigns. Together, we will raise funds and awareness for organizations prioritizing the needs of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.”
It is no question that there is a problem when people (largely BIPOC) are locked up, and have been for years, for marijuana charges. That problem is only made more sinister when one recognizes that both privately and publicly, the cannabis industry is making some people and states a lot of money.
One person or brand can’t right those wrongs. But everyone can do their part.
“African Americans are more likely to be arrested and penalized for cannabis use in every state in the country. That program highlights social justice and these issues that exist in our communities, and we wanna help right those wrongs,” expresses Michael.
Navigating the cannabis world — at home and in court
Speaking of the difficulties navigating the cannabis industry and laws in Massachusetts, Chris says,
“It’s an evolving industry, Mass has done a great job on many fronts. That being said it’s still a very difficult road to follow. It takes a very dedicated team, it takes financial resources and a lot of stamina.”
Michael reiterated the tightrope one must walk when getting into business, and the fear of slipping up.
“When we were interviewing law firms, the first question we asked was ‘what are the chances we’re gonna end up in handcuffs?'”
When Chris and Michael were first talking about getting into business together, they analyzed where the industry was, and perhaps even more importantly, where it was heading.
And lucrative as it is, there still is an immense amount of stigma surrounding marijuana.
“As we were deciding like ‘is this something we wanna do,’ we start[ed] doing a lot of research on cannabis, and you realize that the prohibition of cannabis has been exclusively driven as a result of really restrictive politics, and an incredible amount of misinformation,” says Michael.
“And so this feeling that people have of this illegal drug… is not fair.”
Chris and Michael being advocates of the cannabis value proposition does not mean they think everyone should consume it. Both men are fathers, and told us a bit about how they explain to their kids what they do.
“I think there’s an opportunity to really educate from within, the culture, the youth. [My kids] are super interested. They see everything they need to see on the internet, they know a lot about it, and they’re very curious,” explains Chris.
“It’s actually been great for my kids because I sit down and I talk to them about it and we have very candid discussions about weed and why they shouldn’t be smoking it at 17.”
Brains aren’t fully developed until around age 24, and cannabis should be consumed in moderation (like anything) anyways. But the relief that it offers, on a medicinal and recreational level, is clear to anyone without blinders on.
“In the past three years that we’ve done this, you see the stigma has gone down, but there’s still a lot of educating to do, and that’s a big part of our mission is to let people know that when consumed intelligently, and in moderation, it can provide a real life-enhancement,” says Michael.
The future of The Pass
Getting to this point is huge for Michael, Chris, Pete, and the entire Pass team. But they can’t stop and smell the roses for too long. Success dies in complacency.
“When Tom Brady wins the superbowl, how long does he feel good about that?” Michael ponders.
“I’m guessing he’s in the gym the next day. So when we opened our doors a few weeks ago, Chris and I took a moment to just say ‘wow this is awesome.'”
And then they got straight back to work.
“We’re so proud of what we stand for… but we have so much work to do. This is not the time to be congratulating ourselves.”
The Pass‘ approach to community building — within the insular team of employees, the Berkshires, and the entire cannabis world — sets this business up to be massively successful in the long run.
Forget the cozy entrance and wide-open hall in the dispensary, and the art posted up on the wall in a big room where everyone (especially in COVID-dominated society) feels safe to breathe…
The energy surrounding The Pass just feels fresh.
The Pass feels forward-thinking, ambitious in its pursuits, humble in its resolve.
It feels evergreen, like it will be around for generations and generations to come. It is not just the affable staff, and the high-quality products that me and my team took with us into the Berkshire mountains.
It is the feeling you get when you open the doors, and when you close them as well. A feeling of comfort and peace. Cannabis can’t cure all… but it damn sure feels like when it’s done The Pass‘ way, it can come close.
We had a magnificent time touring and speaking with The Pass. It was like being a kid again on a field trip.
There’s more to cannabis, and there’s more to life. The Pass helped me realize this again.