Northern Specialty Health: The Helpers


“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” These simple yet powerful words spoken to Mr. Rogers by his mother couldn’t be more true in today’s capitalistic cannabis industry. After nearly 20 years in the cannabis industry, I have encountered just about every type of cannabis business owner. Many are driven solely by money or their quest for recognition, but, if you look for the helpers, you will find those committed to compassion and motivated by the love and respect of a sacred plant.

Penny and Ryan Milkey, the owners of Northern Specialty Health (NSH) in Houghton, MI, are helpers. Empathy and compassion have always been central to their business model and they pride themselves on providing the highest quality experience for their patients and customers. Aside from just being good people, their passionate approach to operating their business stems from their personal experience with the amazing healing power of cannabis.

The Milkey’s lives were changed forever in June of 2007 when Ryan broke sections of his neck, back, and ribs in a horrendous four-wheeler accident. After fighting for his life and beginning his recovery, Ryan faced the challenge of an addiction to prescription pain killers, including hydrocodone and fentanyl. Like many others who are searching for effective alternatives to addictive pharmaceuticals, Ryan took his medicine into his own hands. He grew his own cannabis and experimented with a variety of extracts to see what would help his condition the most. With the use of cannabis, Ryan was able to ween himself off all opioids; an undertaking he refers to as “life saving.”

An Empathetic Business Model

In 2013, when the local medicinal dispensary was in danger of closing, Ryan and Penny purchased Northern Specialty Health. Since taking ownership, they have donated time, money, and medicine to those in need and have supplied countless patients with high-quality medicine. After years of successfully employing an empathetic business model, NSH became a Michigan licensed adult-use recreational facility in 2020. The business has evolved, but their business model hasn’t changed. “We pride ourselves on our customer service and patient care. We deeply care about the people and their experience when they visit us,” Penny explains.

Actions speak louder than words and a closer look at the actions taken by NSH highlight both the Milkey’s and their employees’ commitment to the community.

When the COVID pandemic first hit, NSH organized a fabric donation drive, dedicated a section of the store to mask production, and then gave the masks away to essential workers in their community. As a board member of the Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce, Penny helped spearhead the “Stay Safe, Stay Open” campaign. The campaign distributed hand sanitizer, masks, signs, and information to businesses to help them remain open and safe during the pandemic. NSH, along with three other businesses, donated the funds to provide the supplies to more than 100 businesses.

However, long before the pandemic started, NSH had established itself as a strong community supporter. NSH sponsors fishing derbies, demolition derby cars, and sled dog teams, funds municipality beautification projects, donates to local performing arts venues and music festivals, and partners with a local hospital system to sponsor various fun-runs designed to promote health. NSH is a business supporter of 31 Backpacks (a local non-profit dedicated to providing food for at-risk children). Through the Michigan Department of Transportation, NSH also “adopted” a one mile stretch of highway, which they clean and maintain.

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Northern Specialty Health is just as active within the cannabis community as it is in the local community. NSH was a founding supporter of the Michigan Cannabis Prisoner Relief Fund, which was partly responsible for the release of Michael Thompson (who served 25 years of a 60-year sentence for selling cannabis). The Michigan Cannabis Prisoner Relief Fund is part of the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit coalition of cannabis industry leaders, executives, and artists dedicated to bringing restorative justice to the cannabis industry.

Recently, NSH became the very first dispensary in Michigan to work with Hero Project USA, a company raising funds for Michigan veterans. NSH has always honored American servicemen and women with an ongoing 10 percent discount for veterans. Working with Hero Project USA only strengthens NSH’s commitment to veterans.

A Balanced Workplace

Unlike other dispensaries, NSH employees do not accept individual tips. Penny dislikes the way individual tipping creates a bar-like atmosphere in the dispensary. “I don’t want people to feel like they have to leave a tip, I want them to treat us like a pharmacy.” The Milkeys established a no individual tip policy for other reasons too. “We serve everybody equally,” says Penny, adding animosity between employees can occur when individual tipping is involved. “Not collecting individual tips helps builds a team mentality.”

NSH’s no individual tipping policy works because their employees are paid a fair, living wage. NSH doesn’t calculate tips as part of an employee’s wages so the employees are compensated fairly for their time and talents.

Instead of individual tips, NSH has a community tip jar. The money collected is donated to local organizations or individuals in need. The community tip jar has been a huge success. At the end of each month, the employees sit down and discuss to whom the money should be donated. This allows them to select a local organization or individual in a time of need. Since January 2021, the NSH community tips have contributed funds to the Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, Copper Country Humane Society, Omega House (end-of-life care), South Range VFW, 31 Backpacks (additional donation), Ahmeek Fire Department, Western Upper Peninsula Food Bank, and two local families who recently lost their homes to a fire.

Northern Specialty Health’s commitment to its community speaks volumes. The Milkeys and their employees strongly support their local community and the greater cannabis community. Northern Specialty Health is, and always will be, the mom-and-pop cannabis shop that other dispensaries should aspire to be like. Northern Specialty Health’s empathetic business model is the foundation on which their reputation as “the helpers” has been built.

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