Jim Kenyon: A spot of tea for the Upper Valley’s first cannabis retailer

Valley News Columnist
Published: 12/17/2022 9:52:05 PM
Modified: 12/17/2022 9:49:18 PM

A new sign next to the parking lot for a business that will soon open off Route 5 heading into downtown White River Junction is a bit of a head-scratcher: The Tea House?

Sounds like an afternoon gathering spot for the Downton Abbey set. Do they serve crumpets as well?

When deciding on a name for Hartford’s first cannabis retail shop, owner Miriam Wood didn’t listen to friends who urged her to go with something more catchy — preferably involving a pun.

Since Vermont’s Cannabis Control Board began issuing retail licenses in October, fledgling owners have gone that route. There’s the Vermont Bud Barn in Brattleboro. Gram Central in Montpelier. The High Country in Derby.

“I wanted to get away from the stigma of cannabis users being just a bunch of stoners,” Wood told me.

Besides, she added, “tea and cannabis go well together.” (And as I learned from Google, tea is sometimes slang for cannabis, dating back to a 1950s line in West Side Story.)

After receiving her state license on Nov. 30, Wood is waiting for the Hartford Selectboard to sign off at its meeting Tuesday. If all goes according to plan, the Tea House will open shortly before Christmas.

Wood, 39, worked hard to get to this point. She was a single mom in her early 20s, raising two daughters, now 17 and 11, on her own until marrying four years ago.

She spent 14 years in the clerk’s office at Lebanon District Court. The court’s deputy clerk for the last four years, Wood gave up a job this fall that paid almost $60,000 a year, plus a state pension, to be “part of this historic change in Vermont,” she said. “I want to help normalize it.”

Many cannabis users, like herself, are “everyday people who have professional jobs.” Wood said.

They enjoy the aromas and flavors of different strains. (Sound familiar, tea drinkers?) Cannabis can have a calming effect, or it’s useful in pain management as an alternative to prescription medication.

The Vermont Legislature made it legal to grow and possess small amounts of marijuana in 2018. But it’s only recently that anyone ages 21 and up could make over-the-counter purchases in state-regulated specialty shops. Just to get into a cannabis store requires an ID.

Wood, who is Black, is among five “social equity” applicants statewide to receive the cannabis board’s approval. (Overall, the board has approved 29 applications.)

Under the groundbreaking legislation, Black and Hispanic retail shop owners don’t pay the annual $10,000 licensing fee for the first year. They pay discounted fees until their fifth year in business.

“Left-leaning state and city leaders nationwide have embraced social equity marijuana licensing programs, which aim to make amends for decades of aggressive policing of low-income, minority people and help them thrive in the multibillion-dollar legal pot industry,” Pew Charitable Trusts reported last year.

Vermont officials make no apologies — and they shouldn’t — for giving Wood and other minority business owners a leg up.

“It’s been well-documented that the war on drugs and the prohibition of marijuana has disproportionately impacted people of color, nationally, and in Vermont,” Nellie Marvel, spokeswoman for the cannabis board, said in a phone interview.

An American Civil Liberties Union state-by-state analysis showed that due to racial profiling and bias in marijuana enforcement, Black people were 6.1 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates, in Vermont. Only five states had higher arrest rates.

In the last decade, 21 states have legalized the recreational use and sale of cannabis. In New England, New Hampshire remains the lone holdout.

Wood visited stores and talked with business owners in states that legalized cannabis ahead of Vermont. Not everyone was encouraging.

“It’s very hard for minorities to get into the cannabis industry,” Wood said. Black cannabis entrepreneurs account for less than 2% of the industry, Fortune magazine wrote in April.

But even with state waiving the $10,000 licensing fee, Wood lacked the money to get started. With the sale of marijuana still illegal in the federal government’s eyes, getting banks to loan money for cannabis-related businesses is near impossible.

Wood, who has lived in Hartford for 17 years, turned to Mike Davidson, an Upper Valley developer and landlord. She’s known Davidson socially for about a decade, so she felt comfortable approaching him about investing in her business.

“She’s very organized and I liked the idea of what the state was doing (from a social equity standpoint),” Davidson told me in a phone interview. “Don’t get me wrong: It’s a business and I want to make money, but it’s not the most sane thing I’ve ever done.”

Davidson purchased the concrete warehouse at 50 Woodstock Road that is now the Tea House for $532,500 in January, town property records show.

Wood is leasing the building from Davidson, who owns a 27% share of the business but isn’t involved in its day-to-day operation. Wood has hired Dylan Kreis, who previously worked at the Upper Valley Haven, to manage the store. Kreis is married to state Rep. Becca White, who is moving up to the Vermont Senate in January, following her election victory last month.

Last week, Wood and Kreis showed me around the building, which features laminate wood floors and high ceilings with rustic beams and skylights.

The checkout counter and the wall behind it is made of cherry wood — harvested from Davidson’s family farm in upstate New York. “I didn’t want it to look like an old head shop,” said Davidson, who estimated the building’s renovation costs at “north of $200,000.”

Wood, who was still working on a “menu” last week, expects her prices to range between $40 to $60 for 3.5 grams. State law requires products be grown or, in the case of edibles, made in Vermont.

The swag wall was already stocked with Tea House T-shirts. And, you guessed it, organic tea.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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