Originally published in Pittsburgh Independent print issue #1, June 7, 2023.

For a brief moment on April 1, Brian Box Brown thought he scrolled over a joke in his Twitter feed worthy of applause. 

Wiz Khalifa, the multi-platinum-selling rapper who lauds Pittsburgh as his hometown, had discredited a tweet claiming the quality of his cannabis line, Khalifa Kush, was overhyped on the east coast due to his chosen cultivator, Trulieve. 

“Can't believe you partnered with Trulieve to sell overpriced rapper mids,” the tweet by @GroWeedEveryday said.

“It’s actually bomb weed champ,” Khalifa replied.

Brown, an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist and PA medical cannabis patient, took the tweet exchange and turned it into a cartoon for Legalization Nation, a comic series he created explaining cannabis legalization in the U.S. In the drawings, he illustrated Khalifa’s and other celebrities' cannabis brands being “endorsement deals” with corporate multi-state operators (MSO). 

“I honestly thought there would be more Wiz Khalifa fans coming in to say, ‘No, it’s good,’ or ‘What did you want him to do, this is the only way to sell weed in PA,’ but there were very few people who defended him on my page,” Brown said. “But hundreds of people were dunking on him about Trulieve.”

Wiz Khalifa’s representatives and Trulieve did not respond to requests for comment.

“The issue isn’t Khalifa’s strain,” Brown said. The 80/20 Indica-dominant hybrid which bears the rapper’s name was developed specifically for Khalifa, whose real name is Cameron Jibril Thomaz, about a decade ago. 

While Khalifa’s partnership with the Florida-based MSO isn’t uncommon, to many savvy consumers, the term MSO has historically equated to lower-quality products and questionable ethics. 

The poor operations of certain MSOs, like now-disgraced industry unicorn MedMen in 2020, may have factored into this equivalency. But there remain fundamental doubts about whether a product mass-produced for profit can compete, in worker treatment or in quality, with smaller, craft cannabis cultivators.

There are 25 licensed medical cannabis cultivators in Pennsylvania and many of them are MSOs, like Trulieve, the fourth largest cannabis company in the world, which raked in a record revenue last year of $1.24 billion.

It doesn’t bode well for independent grower/processors in the state, and those that are left have seen a steep decline in sales to dispensaries owned by MSOs.

In 2022, the Pittsburgh Business Times interviewed four independent grower/processors from western Pennsylvania that asserted “their products are increasingly being shut out of the market and left off the shelves of dispensaries because the largest players that control the bulk of the market aren’t buying from them anymore or they aren’t buying anywhere near as much.” 

One of the growers, Hanging Gardens, said they planned to sue the state after needing to layoff or reduce the hours of over half its staff, “which the company says is a result of an oligopolistic market that has let a few multistate operators either acquire many competitors or drive them nearly to the brink of insolvency,” according to MJBizDaily.

When Khalifa partnered with the Florida conglomerate in 2022, Trulieve became the “exclusive producer, processor and retailer of Khalifa Kush branded products in Florida and other northeast markets,” according to a press release.

On December 12, 2022, recognized as “Wiz Khalifa Day” by Pittsburgh City Council, Khalifa Kush became available for sale in Trulieve’s Pennsylvania dispensaries.

"It's super cool to be able to sell KK legally in Pittsburgh and because they know it's Wiz's, it's going to be bomb, of course, it's gonna drive the city and the state crazy," said Wiz Khalifa in a prepared statement. "Trulieve is the perfect partner for us because of its commitment to providing the highest quality products and best possible patient experiences."

Trulieve owns several buildings on the former site of the U.S. Steel National Tube Works facility in McKeesport. PurePenn LLC operated its cultivation facility at this location until 2020 when Trulieve bought it for $46 million.

As one of the largest cannabis companies in the United States, Trulieve dispensaries and processing facilities can be found in nine states throughout the country and is leading the market in Pennsylvania.

But bigger doesn’t always mean better.

Steve Bloom, the publisher of CelebStoner.com and former editor at High Times, said the issue is that “[MSOs] don’t have the best reputation for cannabis [quality] because they are big companies doing industrial grows, which is commercial weed that is ok, but not great generally,” Bloom said. “It’s not the small, craft type [cultivators] that connoisseurs certainly prefer, but for pricing, large-scale growing can keep costs down.” 

Both Brown and Bloom speculated that it’s possible celebrities partnering with MSOs outside of the west coast may not understand the monopoly taking place in other states or the companies they are aligning themselves with. 

Lorna McMurrey was a Trulieve employee at the cultivation facility in Massachusetts grinding and packaging products for sale. On January 7, 2022, she “reportedly complained that she couldn’t breathe because of cannabis kief (cannabis dust) in the room. She was taken to a local hospital where she, unfortunately, died soon afterward,” according to Markets Insider. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the cannabis company and reached a settlement of $14,502, which includes an agreement that Trulieve will conduct a study to determine if kief is a hazardous material in a manufacturing facility. 

Trulieve has also been sued for racial and disability discrimination and retaliation against whistleblowers. The company’s CEO, Kim Rivers, is married to John “J.T.” Burnette, who was convicted of extortion and other charges in 2021 and is currently serving a three-year prison sentence. During the investigation, Burnette disclosed to an undercover agent that he conspired “with childhood friend and former state Rep. Halsey Beshears ‘to keep out competitors’ in the nascent medical marijuana industry,” according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

“If [Khalifa] is only doing it for the money, then he made the right move. If he’s doing it for the quality, probably not so,” Bloom said. “Maybe he has to hear this from people and realize it’s not good for his reputation as a cannabis connoisseur; that he has cannabis of low quality, or at least people think so, and he’s going to have to deal with that ultimately because it’s going to tarnish his brand.”