At Trailblazers New York this summer, many conversations centered on how multi-state operators (MSOs) can support social equity or legacy brands. Those attending the exclusive conference, curated for high-level executives and leaders in the cannabis and psychedelics industries, discovered they could learn much from Trulieve. As one of the nation’s largest and most successful cannabis companies, Trulieve is not only an established cannabis giant, but has also sought to mentor legacy brands, particularly in its newest partnerships with DeLisioso and Black Tuna.
(If you'd like the opportunity to learn from Trulieve and other industry leaders, check out the Trailblazers website now to learn how to apply for membership!)
Watch Trulieve co-founder and CEO Kim Rivers discuss the company's partnership with DeLisioso at Trailblazers New York!
Trulieve’s Milestones And Legacy Partnerships: DeLisioso And Black Tuna Cannabis
After a year of seismic activity, Trulieve seems to be stronger than ever. The company’s footprint in Florida, where it was the state’s first fully-licensed medical cannabis brand, remains gigantic (with almost 3 million square feet of operations in the region overall). Trulieve also does business in 10 other states, with leading market positions in Arizona and Pennsylvania as well as the Sunshine State. In October 2021, Trulieve acquired fellow MSO Harvest Health and Recreation Inc., creating the largest multi-state cannabis entity in the U.S to date.
Kim Rivers, Trulieve’s co-founder and CEO, believes it’s time to reinvest some of that good fortune into legacy cannabis. Last year, Trulieve launched Black Tuna, a strain named for and cultivated by writer/producer Robert Platshorn (“Bobby Tuna”), who served 30 years in prison after being convicted of high-level bulk cannabis smuggling in the 1970s. Just this spring, the company also announced it would be the exclusive producer, processor and retailer of DeLisioso, a cannabis brand developed by Richard DeLisi, one of the longest-serving cannabis prisoners in American history. DeLisi was incarcerated for 32 years of a 90-year sentence, released in December 2020 thanks to the restorative justice nonprofit Last Prisoner Project, and founded DeLisioso with his son Rick to continue fighting for those still wrongly imprisoned. Proceeds from the sales of Black Tuna and DeLisioso products benefit education and justice efforts in the cannabis space.
An Interview With Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers
Honeysuckle’s founder Ronit Pinto sat down with Rivers for an exclusive interview about Trulieve’s legacy partnerships, the next steps for medical cannabis advocacy in Florida, and the company’s upcoming big moves.
RONIT PINTO: Richard DeLisi speaks often about how supportive Trulieve has been of the DeLisioso project. How did that partnership come about, and what does it entail?
KIM RIVERS: The DeLisi family has been wonderful to work with. We were introduced to [Richard’s nephew] down in Miami at an event, and he approached me about working with Last Prisoner Project – which we actually have a long history with – and asked if we would be interested in working with his uncle. I loved the idea… Working with the DeLisi family to bring their vision to life in terms of what the DeLisioso brand looks like in a more scaled way, talking with them about where their passion lie in terms of a brand, that was really interesting. It was able to bring us full circle in a way, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is fantastic.”
Seeing the joy for [the DeLisi family] to work together on this project – they’re going to events, traveling around the state of Florida, meeting with our patients and customers – you can just tell what it brings to them. It also provides a stable lifestyle for [Richard], because when you get out of prison, you don’t have anything. So being able to rebuild a life in this industry that he continues to be so passionate about has just been incredibly rewarding.
[In the Trulieve-DeLisioso partnership] we’re starting with flower and genetics. He’s been very involved in selecting and helping us hone in on the specific genetic makeup he and his family were looking to launch their line with. So we went through a number of testing rounds with them. Our cultivation facilities in Florida have a large footprint; [our operations] have almost 3 million square feet. To meet with our breeding and genetics team, and work hand-in-hand with how we were going to bring this brand to life, was [an incredible match with the DeLisis]. They also have an apparel line, which 100 percent theirs and which we’re very supportive of as well. We’ll continue to develop products with them over time. We’re looking forward to bringing additional flower lines together. And then [we’re talking] with his son Rick, utilizing his experience in the concentrate arena to potentially launch a concentrate line, so we’re just really excited for them. We feel very fortunate to be in the position we’re in as a larger company to be able to cultivate and help build brands that are meaningful and are truly giving back in very personal and impactful ways to someone who has given so much of his life to this industry.
I don’t think people understand, until they meet someone who’s been incarcerated, just how heavy all these things land for a person in Richard’s position. He’s so excited to go to every opening, every event.
What’s the mentoring process that you go through with a legacy brand like DeLisioso?
It’s really important that when we partner with a brand or a person like Richard DeLisi that we want that [project] to be successful. So it’s not like, “Thanks, we’ll take it from here.” It’s attempting to work with that person so they understand all of the steps in creating a sustainable business, so that as decisions are made, the business grows with or without us. That the foundation is very solid.
We have an exploratory process with them where we’re really trying to understand their story. What is going to be the backbone of this brand? What are they passionate or not passionate about? Then we take them through a process both on the cultivation and production sides, very tactical as well as [looking at] the branding. They work with the top-level folks in our company and those various departments to bring it to life. And they are very involved in the process along the way, [to ensure] an authentic brand at the end of the day.
Our hope is that it’s a very long-lasting and sustainable brand. But it’s also a learning process on both sides. We’re trying to understand… what drives and motivates them, so we can help position it in the best way possible. Then getting them behind the scenes, [they see], “Oh, these are all the steps we have to take. These are the things we need to be thinking about.” That’s not just for this particular product, but for all of our products and product lines on a go-forward basis.
How did you decide on Flamingo Kush as the first strain to launch the DeLisioso brand in Florida?
That was a conversation with them; “what are you looking for out of this particular strain?” Then it was a brainstorming session between the teams and they wanted something very Florida-oriented. [Richard] served his time in Florida and he was very definitely a Kush guy. And that’s what the team came up with.
How hands-on are you personally with them?
As a CEO, it’s a balance. (Laughs) I love to be as hands-on as I can be with everything. But with these [legacy partnerships] in particular, they are a passion project for me. I also want to make sure that at the end of the day, they’re getting the best possible end brand, which is not necessarily my expertise. So I’m certainly involved in supporting and ensuring that our organization knows these are important priorities for us. But I also think it’s super important that they’re interacting with the best talent we have within Trulieve, which is not necessarily me for each one of those steps. I have been in several meetings with those guys; I talk to them on a regular basis. Every couple months we have time set aside where I’m checking in to make sure that the process is going well and that if they have questions or need anything, then they know they can always reach out to me. They’ll text me pictures of them at stores and with customers. So we have a really wonderful and supportive dynamic.
And it’s a similar partnership with the Black Tuna brand?
Yes. We launched the Black Tuna brand with Bobby Tuna, who similarly served a long sentence for cannabis. He was part of the Black Tuna Gang and convicted of cannabis smuggling [in the 1970s]. He now has a very successful brand with us. For [Trulieve], thinking about partnerships in a way where we can do good by helping folks get back on their feet and have a sustainable career in the industry, is very [rewarding].
Bobby actually spearheaded what was called the Silver Tour in Florida that advocated for Amendment Two [the state’s Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, which created wider accessibility to medical cannabis for patients with debilitating conditions, and was passed in 2016]. He traveled around and did education seminars for seniors and nursing homes throughout the state. [He still does], and has been a longtime proponent of the industry. We’re figuring out how we can support, in a meaningful way, advocates and folks who have invested so much in the industry. That’s one of the primary criteria we’re looking for when we look at our brand partners. It’s not just about writing a check, it’s about a partnership. As a larger company, we’ll continue to look for those investments and those individuals and stories where we can make a difference.
What are things that larger companies can do to help with cannabis prisoners’ reentry efforts?
One, work with nonprofits like Last Prisoner Project and invest in their mission to assist in identifying [cases] and getting folks out of prison. Two, [at Trulieve] we spend a lot of time and energy around expungement. To the extent that we can, we want to help folks clear their records so that they don’t have those barriers to entry any longer. People don’t realize it’s primarily a paperwork and cost situation for low-level cannabis offenses that can cause those barriers to entry for individuals [convicted of a minor crime]. We do work and run clinics in each of our markets, and also in markets that we’re not even in yet, because we do feel it’s important for those folks to be able to participate in the industry fully, and to be able to exercise their right to vote and to be impactful as this cannabis ecosystem is developing over time. [I would urge larger companies to do this too.] Three, look to help in a very meaningful way. That’s one of the challenges, quite frankly – as companies grow, there’s a lot of demand on resources, and knowing where and how to invest so that you’re actually making an impact is so important. It’s time and energy helping create and build these brands from the ground up. But it’s so rewarding because we can see how much we’re impacting and influencing these lives.
You mentioned medical advocacy. What are Trulieve’s key focus points right now for Florida’s medical patients? What do they still need that should be advocated for?
Oh gosh, I feel like the advocacy never stops. Certainly in Florida for the last several years, we’ve been continuing to fight stigmas against cannabis, specifically at the legislative level. We have, with our patients’ and advocates’ help, successfully stopped attempts to limit THC percentages and put further restrictions on quantities and [product potency]. We do strongly believe that that’s a patient’s choice. In a medical state, it’s the patient’s choice in consultation with their physician. So we have to always remain vigilant in terms of ensuring that we’re not going backwards. Instead, we should be increasing access, increasing availability, and increasing the patient’s ability to find the right product for them that’s going to generate the best level of relief from what they’re trying to accomplish in their cannabis journey. That’s very individual in nature. Keeping that front and center in Florida, and all of our markets, continues to be really important.
We’ve been involved with Regulate Florida, a group that has been advocating for home grow and for increased availability through a less restrictive regulatory structure. We continue to work with them. [Their petition to legalize home cultivation] made it to the Florida Supreme Court and then unfortunately the language was struck down, but we are supporters of home grow in Florida and other markets. We actually just launched another round of clones that we’re selling in Massachusetts, into that home grow market. We do believe that folks should have that choice, and we’re advocates front and center for that choice.
What do you think is next for Florida as a cannabis market?
I think Florida’s going to continue to grow. We’re a huge state with 21 million residents and approximately 130 million tourists who come to Florida every single year. On the medical side, we saw during Covid that there was an emergency executive order put into place that allowed for telemedicine. And we saw significant and material increases in the number of folks who were able to access a medical card because they were able to access a physician appointment. That’s one thing that we’re continuing to remind folks of. I would love to see Florida be an opioid replacement state where [patients] could choose cannabis over opioids, with a relatively low barrier to that choice. But I do think adult-use is potentially coming to Florida. We are looking forward to an amendment that we believe will be filed to allow for voters to let the government know that they are supportive of adult-use in the state… I would expect that to come out in the very near future.
What’s next for Trulieve?
We’re really excited about our expanded footprint. We’re just starting to move the Trulieve retail brand into the state of Arizona. It’s our first foray in a very meaningful way into the Southwest.
And that’s through Harvest?
Yes. At the federal level, along with The Weldon Project, which is one of our partners in that effort. [On the political front], while we thought it was great that there were some pardons that were issued, it was way too few. We think that this administration has such an opportunity to really stand behind the promises that they made during the election cycle. And as we enter into this next election cycle for midterms, it’s all of our responsibilities to remind folks on both sides of the aisle to ask those questions [and] talk about what has actually happened. What concrete things is someone who’s running for office committed to doing for this industry? It’s our time… We have a responsibility to start asking those questions and holding folks accountable.
What would you say to the Biden administration? (Editors' Note: This question was asked before President Biden announced his intended simple possession pardons and cannabis policy reform.)
I would just encourage them to make good on the promises that were made. Citizens are just hungry for people doing what they said they were going to do. There’s just so much credibility that can be earned by simply making good on the expectations that were set forth when he was elected. I think he’s been vocal in saying that he agrees folks should not be incarcerated for cannabis. That’s wonderful. But now, what are we going to do about it?
For more information about Trulieve, visit trulieve.com. Find out more about Trailblazers by visiting trailblazerspresents.com.
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Trulieve co-founder and CEO Kim Rivers (C) Kira Derryberry, courtesy of Trulieve