This article is the first in a series examining the impact of possibly having a marijuana dispensary in the town of Somers. Over the next few months, we’ll publish articles, release a podcast and host a community forum on Zoom around this topic.
Edward Abrahams understands why residents may be opposed to having a marijuana dispensary in the town of Somers, which has until Dec. 31 to opt out of permitting such an enterprise under a state law passed last month legalizing recreational marijuana.
Under the law, municipalities can decide for themselves whether to allow local pot shops. If a town opts out, it would lose out on the tax benefits that this new industry would generate.
Abrahams can speak with authority on the topic. As vice chair of the Selectboard—the governing body—in Great Barrington, Mass., he understands the mixed messages that Somers leaders could be sending to the children in town.
“I spent many years trying to keep [my daughters] from smoking pot,” Abrahams said in a phone interview last week. “The irony wasn’t lost on me, or the hypocrisy on my daughters… The biggest legitimate fear is that normalizing pot use sends a message to children that it’s OK. As of now, there’s no evidence either way.”
But Abrahams, who feels that bars serving alcohol probably create more of a negative impact on his community, also had a vision for his town of 7,000 people when Massachusetts legalized recreational weed.
“When that happened, I wanted to be first,” he said. “It was a $3 million good idea… First thing we had to do was come up with zoning.”
Great Barrington decided that marijuana dispensaries should be permitted anywhere other retail stores are allowed, except within 200 feet of a K-12 school. What Abrahams discovered is that aside from some parking issues due to demand and the long line that was visible from the road when the first dispensary—Theory Wellness—opened its doors in 2019, there really wasn’t a negative impact on the community.
The Somers Record reached out to all five members of the Great Barrington Selectboard. Abrahams was the only one who responded.
“In their first year doing business in our town, Theory [Wellness] paid us approximately $3 million in local sales tax and ‘community impact fee.’ Our annual operating budget, not counting our school assessment, is almost $13 million, so that’s a significant bump for us,” Abrahams said. “Economically, it has only been a win.”
An economic development organization in the Berkshires describes Great Barrington as a vibrant location with more than 30 theater, visual arts, historic and heritage venues, as well as many shops and restaurants.
A majority of Theory Wellness customers are from out of state, including many from New York.
When Theory Wellness first opened, a local candy proprietor, Robin Helfand, of Robins Candy, handed out coupons to customers who waited on line.
“They really want to be a permanent part of what makes life good in Great Barrington,” Helfand said in regard to Theory Wellness. She also encouraged customers to not just park, purchase marijuana and leave.
“Do a little shopping; have a bite to eat; make a day of it,” she said.
Thomas Winstanley, the 33-year-old vice president of marketing for Theory Wellness, remembers well the first day that it opened. Winstanley was standing in the vault area with one of the local police officers, several of whom were being paid stipends to help the new store manage the crowds.
“There were just big old bags of cannabis everywhere and he’s sitting there drinking his coffee and I’m standing next to him, and I’m like, ‘Did you ever think you’d see this?’”Winstanley said. “And he’s like, ‘No, not really.’ But he’s like, ‘Hey, you know, so it goes.’”
Since that time, Winstanley said, the members of the Great Barrington Police Department and the employees at his store have gotten to know one another really well.
“We work really closely with the Great Barrington police force. And we’ve had just this amazing, amazing relationship with these guys,” Winstanley said.
Recently, Theory Wellness made a sizable donation to the police department’s K-9 unit. After the donation, one of the K-9 officers brought his dog to Theory Wellness to socialize with customers.
Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti confirms that his department has a good relationship with the people at Theory Wellness. At the time that the dispensary opened in 2019, Storti was a sergeant and was put in charge of conducting a security evaluation of the establishment.
“They are very professional,” Storti said in a phone interview last week. “They are well-run. It’s a really, really good relationship. They are a very good community partner.”
Storti said he has seen no uptick in driving infractions due to recreational marijuana use since the first dispensary opened in town, but conceded it’s tough to quantify, as it’s sometimes difficult to detect, especially when the substance is consumed as an edible. Recently, one of his officers was trained as a drug recognition expert, but the verdict is still out.
But the operators at Theory Wellness have every incentive to “get it right,” as Winstanley repeated several times during an in-person visit to his store last week.
“If we’re going to be bringing in millions of dollars to a community, you know that there are going to be a lot of eyes coming back to us, but that doesn’t really alarm us,” Winstanley said. “The more important thing is we just have to get this right. Certain people want you to step out of line. Everybody, I think, at times will look at you and say, ‘These guys are doing something they shouldn’t be doing [it’s still a federally illegal Class 1 substance]. But that’s just not how we operate. We actually want to try to do things and say, “Hey look, actually, we’re a part of this community. We love it here.’”
So what exactly does a dispensary like Theory Wellness look like and what exactly does it do? Some people may have the wrong impression.
“There are still people thinking we’re selling drugs at a grocery store behind a parking lot,” Winstanley said.
THE INSIDE STORY
Theory Wellness is one of the most successful dispensaries nationwide. It has two recreational locations in Massachusetts and an additional location that only dispenses medical marijuana. It also has two locations in Maine, with a third location in Maine opening shortly.
To get inside Theory Wellness in Great Barrington, customers must present their driver’s license several times, including once before entering the building, and another couple of times when the customer is inside, to ensure all are 21 years old and older and to prevent daily purchases that exceed 1 ounce of marijuana or 5 grams of concentrated cannabis oil. The daily maximum is enforced to minimize the black market in marijuana sales.
Theory Wellness can only be described as a cross between an Apple Store, a winery or a craft beer brewery and a bank with a vault. Just like in an Apple Store, there is often a waiting time to purchase the product, and during COVID, customers are asked to pre-order and choose a time for pick-up. As in a winery or a craft beer brewery, the staff are equipped with the knowledge equal to that of a sommelier or a bartender who can rattle off the description of an IPA, including the hop character, aroma, flavor and level of bitterness.
And as with a bank, there is a chain of custody of the drug that documents every transfer and touchpoint.
“We have cameras in every corner that cover every single inch of the interior property as well as the exterior,” Winstanley said.
Theory Wellness sells what it calls “flower,” which is the psychoactive portion of the plant. It also sells pre-rolled joints, vaporizers with concentrated cannabis oil and other concentrates intended for “dabbing,” which is another way to consume vaporized cannabis.
For those who don’t want to inhale smoke or vape, Theory Wellness sells gummies and chocolate infused with cannabis. Its newest product is called Hi5, which is a seltzer that is sold in different flavors, including peach mango, lime and grapefruit.
There are different species of cannabis plants. There are strains called “sativa” and others called “indica” and there are hybrid plants that have percentages of both. Sativa is known to act as a stimulant, whereas indica acts as a sedative.
Similar to the alcohol percentage or “ABV” (alcohol by volume), Theory Wellness provides a THC percentage of each flower. THC is the acronym for tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
On its menu at the time of this writing, Theory Wellness was selling flower called Candy OG, Smoking Mirrors, Punch Cookies, Cheese Wiz, K’Smorz and Cake Bomb, among others.
At 25.8%, Cake Bomb had the highest THC concentrate on the menu. It’s described as “an indica from Prolific Coast Seeds. These trichome heavy flowers have a slightly purple hue and bolster a sweet and savory aroma. The effects offer a full-body relaxation that might border on sedating, so be prepared to kick back!”
Theory Wellness does not permit any onsite consumption.
Theory Wellness was co-founded by roommates at Colby College in Maine: Brandon Pollock, CEO, and Nick Friedman, CFO, both of whom are now 32 years old.
While seniors at Colby, they started their first business, a bottle-less water cooling and purifying system for office use.
Like many entrepreneurs of their generation, they emphasize their progressive roots. They employ 300-plus people between all their locations, offer health insurance to their employees and just launched a 401(k) program.
The company is involved with every phase of the business, including cultivation and farming, and it supports progressive causes such as sustainability and social equity. Winstanley explained that its focus is on bringing cannabis out of the black market and into the legal market, and that impacts how it markets its products.
“Long gone are the days of your stash box that is kind of dirty and grody and smells like old cannabis,” said Winstanley, who is in charge of everything from media relations to packaging and customer service. “We want products that you can put on a shelf that look like they belong there. We take a lot of time to curate that.”
Winstanley said the company is “vertically integrated.” It leases land from a farmer in nearby Sheffield.
“Let’s create a sustainable partnership,” he said. “Let’s work with someone who already has the expertise and the knowledge base. Let’s bring our cultivation insights to his farmland and let Mother Nature take care of the rest.
“The environmental impact is much lower because you are harnessing the sun. And the part of the land we have is a natural aquifer running beneath the soil. And we take a lot of environmentally conscious steps like ‘zero till’ soil.”
These processes emit less carbon, he said. Furthermore, the company does not use pesticides. Instead, it uses a process called “polyculturing,” planting lavender, sage, thyme and lemon grass, all of which are aromatic plants that distract the insects from harming the cannabis plants.
“A partnership with a farmer shows a much more sustainable model because it gets someone into the game that didn’t already have access,” he said, explaining that it’s very difficult to get into the industry because cannabis is still outlawed on the national level.
Winstanley cited a statistic that non-whites are four times more likely to be prosecuted for drug crimes because of the color of their skin. With the success that Theory Wellness has had, the company recognizes that people negatively impacted by drug laws should have a leg up when getting into the industry.
“This is not an easy industry,” he said. “People are seeing the green rush and they’re going, ‘I can do this.’ This is a very brutal industry. You’re not getting federal support. You’re not going to get banking support. Insurance companies might not want to work with you. All of the time, a lot of people are saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t service you because you are a cannabis brand.’ And that’s part of the game, and so we realize at a certain point, this industry is not as diverse as it should be. There is not enough social equity in this industry, in Massachusetts in particular. So, we said, ‘You know what? We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by helping someone who deserves to be in this industry.’ So, let’s actually put our money where our mouth is, and say, ‘We’re going to go support a competitor getting in the market.’ And we knew that a lot of these groups that are applying, these economic empowerment or social equity candidates, they have incredible stories.”
As part of that mission, Theory Wellness provided $100,000 in debt-free financing to entrepreneur, Legal Greens, who will pay it back when their newly opened dispensary in Brockton becomes cash flow positive. It also gives new businesses $150,000 worth of wholesale product on consignment.
On top of the tax dollars Theory Wellness pays to Great Barrington and the state of Massachusetts, the company is required to give 3% of its gross margin to a community impact fund launched by Great Barrington as part of its host agreement. Additionally, it is required to donate at least $10,000 annually to nonprofit organizations.
But the company goes beyond that. It has partnered with community development groups, supported farmers markets, sponsored local 5Ks and the Berkshire International Film Festival and hosted a panel to discuss pediatric cancer. It also is sensitive to appearances when it comes to promoting drugs.
“For us to go sponsor a Little League team would be a weird conflict of interest,” Winstanley said. So instead it donated to something called the Railroad Street Youth Project, where funds are earmarked for educational resources for parents.
IN SEARCH OF RELIEF
Theory Wellness was founded in 2015 as a medical marijuana dispensary, and it has stayed true to its roots.
While its core customer demographic is 25- to 34-year-olds, the fastest growing demographic is among those 45 to 65 years old.
“For the little old lady who has chronic arthritis who heard about CBD that might help as a topical to reduce swelling in her knuckles, they are showing up here,” Winstanley said.
Others purchase it for its natural remedial properties.
“There was a guy who was coming here who had done two tours in Afghanistan,” Winstanley said. “He had reconstructive knee surgery and could not sleep… He did not want to keep going to the V.A. because they just kept on saying, ‘Here, take these pills.’ This guy was coming here because it was the only thing that was giving him quality of sleep.”
Winstanley also remembers the time he helped a mother who was on crutches.
“I held the door for her and I walked her out to her car,” he said. It turned out that she was a teacher in Albany who had sprained her ankle.
“I didn’t want to take pills,” she told him.
Moving forward, Winstanley is particularly concerned about supply and demand in New York. He noted that when Massachusetts approved the sales of recreational marijuana, there were 30 cultivation sites. After three years, there is still a supply and demand problem, he said, and it can’t be solved by crossing state lines due to the federal laws. Meanwhile, in New York, there are only 10 cultivation sites.
“Ultimately, you know what it’s going to do,” he said. “You all are just going to bolster the black market.”
Somers has been keeping an eye on the smoke signals from Albany for several years.
In 2019, the town considered passing a law that would have banned any kind of pot shops anywhere within its borders and got so far as holding a public hearing. (The town had amended its zoning code the year before in order to control where vaping products could be sold.)
Then, in 2020, after it became obvious that recreational marijuana legalization was inevitable, it considered regulating where the dispensaries could or could not operate. Changing the zoning codes would have kept retail pot shops out of “Neighborhood Shopping Districts.”
For several reasons — including possible court challenges — it held its fire until the state law was in place. The topic re-emerged at a Town Board meeting last month.
Somers’s attorney, Roland A. Baroni, who also advises neighboring North Salem, plans to get together with other municipal legal eagles to draft “a pretty standard, standalone law.”
That’s so that there’s “some uniformity” among northern Westchester communities that opt out, he explained. The Town Board plans to hold a public hearing on the proposed law in June.
Even though the state law is in effect now, the state still has to establish an Office of Cannabis Management, create a licensing system, and set up the framework for legal recreational marijuana sales.
The earliest anyone should expect to see dispensaries open would be next spring.
“We’re in the midst of a drug crisis not only in Somers, but in the county and the state. We’re experiencing in town – this is not next to our town or New York City – young people overdosing almost on a monthly basis,” Supervisor Rick Morrissey said last month. “It’s a scary proposition.”
The jury is still out on whether marijuana is a “gateway drug” or not, he added.
Calling it “ill-conceived,” Morrissey said that if the law’s intent was just to generate revenue, there’s “a myriad of other ways.”
Councilman Richard Clinchy noted that there could be people who won’t support opting out because they “think it’s (marijuana) less harmful than alcohol and that people have been prosecuted wrongly on what is not a major issue.”
The retired teacher said he was worried about the message being sent to young people.
First, it’s been drummed into them that smoking weed is wrong and harmful to their health; now it’s like “Forget it, it’s legal,” Clinchy said.
Winstanley also noted that the emergence of recreational cannabis in markets decreases alcohol sales by 15 percent.
An invitation to Morrissey and all Town Board members remains open.
“Every municipality has an invitation to a white-glove visit,” Winstanley said.
Meanwhile, the vice chair of the Great Barrington Selectboard doesn’t mind if New York moves slowly on this.
“It really hasn’t been a problem, but take your time, as we’re making a lot of money,” Abrahams said.
Carol Reif contributed to this report.