A lucrative new industry is quietly thriving in what was once the heart of Michigan’s Copper Country—and only one pioneering pot shop has been there since the beginning.
HOUGHTON—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is cherished for its stunning landscapes and rugged, untamed wilderness. It’s a timeless, 16,000-square-mile paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and a haven for those seeking solitude amid nature’s grandeur.
It’s also a pretty great place to get stoned.
Since Michiganders voted to legalize cannabis for adult use in 2018, at least four dozen dispensaries have been licensed to do business across the Upper Peninsula, state records show. More than two dozen cultivation or processing facilities are also licensed in the UP.
But for all its boundless greenery, the Upper Peninsula hasn’t always been the easiest place to score a bag of weed. In fact, before 2019, there was only one marijuana dispensary to serve all 300,000 Yoopers and the more than 1 million tourists who make the trek Up North every year.
As such, the name may sound familiar: Northern Specialty Health.
It’s the only family-owned dispensary in the city of Houghton and the oldest continuously operated pot shop in the Upper Peninsula. And this year, owner Penny Milkey and her husband, Ryan, will have officially kept their “Mom and Pop Cannabis Shop” in business for a full decade.
In recognition of the milestone, Penny Milkey sat down with The ‘Gander to look back on the last 10 years of working in one of the most lucrative industries in Michigan—and shed some light on how Northern Specialty Health has been able to thrive amid the growing competition.
Spoiler alert: This locally-owned pot shop isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Have you always wanted to work with cannabis?
No. I’m a teacher. I have a teaching background, and my husband was an electrician.
We don’t have business backgrounds. We only got into cannabis after my husband got into a four-wheeler accident in 2007. He broke his back and neck, and cannabis really helped—so we became medical marijuana caregivers before we took over Northern Specialty Health in 2013.
The idea was just to be available and open. There were existing clients that were using the store—and we first just wanted to make sure patients up here were able to get their medicine. It just kept growing from there. Now we’re in the adult-use market, and we have nine employees.
Was it daunting to get involved in such a new industry?
We’re lucky to be in Houghton, which is pretty accepting of cannabis, but it wasn’t always easy. I had to go to so many City Council and Planning Commission meetings—just to make a case for allowing cannabis businesses to operate in the city. I met everybody I could to show them that I’m not a stereotypical stoner. I’m a wife, a business owner, and a mom. I’m a normal person.
A decade is a long time. What’s your secret to success?
I think it’s because we really care. We smoke, and we know how much it can help people. We don’t do it for the money. We do it because people need cannabis, and we want to help them.
We also just have this one location, and we have no plans to expand. A lot of people are in this industry fighting, racing to expand, and scratching each other’s eyes out to open dispensaries in border towns. We don’t want anything to do with that. We’re one and done. We’re happy. We’re good enough. We don’t need to be the biggest company in the state or the Upper Peninsula.
What’s the best part about owning your own pot shop?
We have all the buying power. There’s nobody telling us what we have to carry. It’s all up to us. We’re also small, and we don’t have a lot of brand new buildings and other things—but we’re good, and we have a great local customer base that is very loyal and supports local businesses.
How do you decide what goes on the shelves?
It’s about variety. A lot of times, I don’t want to carry stuff that I wouldn’t smoke—but we also have to have some low-tier products that are in a lower price range for some customers. We just try to carry a little bit of everything, including those top-tier products for those who want them.
We also always try to carry some flower that was grown in the Upper Peninsula.
Is there anything unique about the cannabis industry in the UP?
The cannabis market—like everything else in the Upper Peninsula—is definitely different than in Lower Michigan. Everything in the UP always seems to be a little behind the times. If there’s a particular brand or product that’s super popular in Lower Michigan, most people in the Upper Peninsula won’t even hear about it for quite a while. We’re just a bit slower to get new stuff.
Are Yoopers buying more flower or edibles nowadays?
What’s your favorite product on the shelves right now?
I love pre-rolls. I know pre-rolls get so much hate—but you just have to find the good ones. Element makes some great infused pre-rolled joints. Forté is growing another great strain called Mango Haze. I just blew through a 10-pack of Mafia Funeral from Redemption. That’s great, too.
What’s the most creative and fun name you’ve ever seen for a strain?
Oh, gosh. We tried to order one strain today called “Adios, Motherf—ers.” There are all sorts of wild names. We try not to get anything too inappropriate, and definitely never anything political.
Any big plans for the 10-year anniversary in December?
We’re going to be celebrating our anniversary all December long—and we’ll probably have some more specific specials or promotions that we’ll be able to announce later this year.
Anything exclusive that we can offer just for our readers?
Any customer who mentions the MichiGanja Report can get a free pre-rolled joint.
When people come Up North, it’d be nice if they shopped at our store. It’s a unique experience. We’re not some big chain. You can’t get this experience anywhere else. It’s only in Houghton.
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