Helping to build a brand-new industry is generally a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but for Michael Cohen, co-founder and president of The Pass, a vertically integrated adult-use cannabis operator in Massachusetts, the cannabis industry gave him a second opportunity to be at the start of something big.
Cohen launched one of the first internet ad buying agencies in 1996, when online advertising was in its infancy.
“I was part of this string of industry professionals where we were all true believers,” Cohen says. “People would say, ‘I don’t get online advertising, I would never click on one of those banners.’ We would tell people, ‘This is the future of marketing,’ and three years later, it was just booming.”
Cohen sold the company and turned to consulting and investing as he waited for his next business opportunity. Now, almost 20 years later, he’s found it in the cannabis industry.
Cohen and his partner, Chris Weld, have been building their cannabis business for nearly three years, and currently hold three licenses in Massachusetts for cultivation, processing and retail. They operate indoor and greenhouse cultivation facilities in Sheffield, Mass., in Berkshire County, and have a provisional license for an outdoor grow site. The Pass opened its first dispensary location in the Berkshires July 17 and has the option to open two more storefronts with its current retail license.
“When we first started, when we were interviewing lawyers, our first question to our lawyer was, ‘What are the chances we’re going to end up in handcuffs?’” Cohen says. “That was an issue for us. It just felt like there was a lot more stigma three years ago. … We’re just really proud to be creating a product that provides people with inspiration, relaxation, relief and stimulation.”
Cohen describes the Berkshires as “an intersection of nature and culture,” a place where families visit to connect with nature and art, and he has worked to make his dispensary an extension of that.
“The Pass brand we also believe is representative of the cannabis experience,” he says. “The Pass stands for ‘permission.’ We’ve been given the pass to consume—this is now legal. It represents communal sharing. It represents passing from one state to another. It represents the mountain passes in which we live … and getting from one hard-to-reach place to another.”
Preparing for Opening Day
Leading up to the dispensary’s grand opening on July 17, Cohen and his team were busily training retail staff, setting up merchandising displays and, of course, grappling with the necessary precautions to keep employees and customers safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pass hired 25 new retail employees for its Berkshires store, and Cohen says he became emotional walking into the conference room this past week to give a presentation to the new hires.
“You have this idea, then you start pursuing it, and I’ve had so many of these over the years just not come to fruition, and this one really has,” he says. “We’re so proud to be working in the cannabis industry.”
The Pass has 40 total employees for its vertically integrated operations, and Cohen hopes to expand his staff to 50 by the end of the month as it hires for cultivation, manufacturing, logistics and sales positions.
“It’s so amazing to be able to provide a full range of jobs and career opportunities for people in the Berkshires, which is a place that has been hard hit by COVID, like others,” he says. “It’s historically a beautiful place to raise a family, but a hard place to make a living. We have jobs for people who need to feed themselves and we have serious career opportunities in an industry that is a generational business opportunity.”
“I just remember building a team back in the ’90s and how amazing it was to be a part of a team of people who really believed in what they were doing,” Cohen adds. “We were doing something really exciting, and it’s like the same thing all over again, 20 years later. We’re really trying to build a culture—we’re building a diverse culture of people that really want to be here and I’m totally thrilled.”
The Pass cultivates 40 different varieties of cannabis, and its cultivation team has completed its first harvest at the indoor facility in Sheffield. The greenhouse has been planted, with some rows just beginning to flower.
“The guys who grow [the plants], they talk about it like a sommelier talks about wine,” Cohen says. “They’re just in love with the plants.”
With final inspections recently completed by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, The Pass’ packaging operations are now in full swing to package the vape cartridges, concentrates, edibles, tinctures and topicals produced at the company’s processing facility.
The Pass is also in the process of launching its marketing efforts, which include a billboard and a print ad in Berkshire Magazine.
When Massachusetts reopened after shutting down nonessential businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, adult-use cannabis dispensaries could reopen for curbside service only, and The Pass set to work creating SOPs for curbside pickup.
Now, the dispensary is permitted to offer in-store sales with a limited number of people allowed in the store at any given time, and the Pass requires all staff and customers to wear masks at all times.
“One of the nice things about our space is it’s really lofty,” Cohen says. “It’s a big open barn, a modern barn. The ceilings are really high, and it feels spacious, but obviously, we have the stickers on the floor to mark 6 feet. … We’re taking it seriously.”
Now that the dispensary has officially opened, Cohen is most excited to learn who The Pass’ customers are and which products they are most interested in.
All aspects of the company’s supply chain maintain constant communication, so the processing team can design its products around the specific genetics produced by the cultivation team. In addition, the retail space is located adjacent to the lab, which allows the processing team to answer the dispensary staff’s questions or address concerns about specific products.
“Education and listening are a really big part of the process from a retail standpoint,” Cohen says. “We’ll have all these different consumers who will be coming for all these different needs and many will have a lot of questions, so we want to educate them.”
Although The Pass’ specific sales analytics remain to be seen, Cohen has been studying the sales data in Massachusetts and has found that flower comprises 50% to 60% of the market, whereas vape cartridges and edibles make up 10% to 15% of all cannabis sales.
“I think that with COVID, which attacks the lungs, it’s reasonable to think that edibles and tinctures will probably be a product group that grows in this current environment,” he says. “I think that flower is king, and I think for us, we’re creating a full range of products, and we’ll probably want to expand on that over time.”
The Pass plans to sell its products in other dispensaries throughout Massachusetts, and it already carries other brands’ products in its store, as well.
“Our short-term goals are to be a viable, successful business, to provide a full range of experience, to enhance our consumers’ lives [and] to broaden a higher level of consciousness,” Cohen says. “We are committed to education. We are committed to inhibiting underage consumption. … We want to provide people with career opportunities and development opportunities. We want to make a positive impact on our community and our environment. We want to be responsible stewards of the plant and of our products."