To understand the cannabis business from 30,000 feet, you need to talk to the man who’s been to the mountaintop and inhaled the rarified vapors of Pot Baron success up at its craggy peak. Tripp Keber has been called everything from the ‘The King of Cannabis’ to ‘The Willy Wonka of Weed’ to ‘The Ronald Reagan of Reefer’ to ‘The Gordon Gekko of Ganja.’ (Tripp, for his part, interprets each one of these nicknames as a compliment.) As CEO of Dixie Brands from 2010 to 2018, Tripp oversaw one of the fastest growing cannabis companies, while establishing himself as a leading public advocate for the industry. In one of the most critical periods in the push for legalization, Tripp was instrumental in leading the charge. After all, marijuana didn’t just go and legalize itself, kids. Like it or not, the moneymakers ultimately made pot legal in America and Tripp Keber was at the vanguard of the movement. And as he scaled the mountain, the spotlight followed him up every ridge.
The cannabis industry needed someone telegenic and articulate out in front of the cameras and Tripp thrived in that role. For years, he was the one making the corporate case for legalization on 60 Minutes, MSNBC, CNBC, and Nat Geo. And so today, when you pick up your edibles, joints and vape-pens at your local dispensary (sans the need to keep-out a side-eye for the po-po) you in no small part have Tripp Keber to thank. However, as he makes clear in our interview, Tripp is no altruistic hippie. He got into pot as a true-believer capitalist trying to capitalize on what he saw as a largely untapped industry. He was one of the first big entrepreneurs to dare to roll the hemp dice, and it’s paid off handsomely.
When I first met Tripp in 2015, it was to discuss doing a docuseries about his life and quest to become the first pot billionaire. (The show concept never materialized; I don’t know if Tripp is a billionaire but I hear he’s doing just fine.) Back then, when I was calling around to the other Denver cannabusinesses to do my research on Tripp, I was expecting to hear some degree of negativity, jealousy and dissent. Instead, I heard almost universally positive stories about Tripp as a mentor, leader, industry standard-bearer and friend. And as I came to know Tripp personally, I saw why: he’s a hard man not to like. He has the authenticity to match his audacity. He enjoys making connections as much as he does making a buck.
None of this is to say Tripp is a saint or that the road to ganja glory wasn’t at times like a horse-drawn carriage trying to galumph its path down a cobblestone byway. Among other things, Tripp has had to weather a well-documented (and controversial) arrest , the federal government’s often-vacillating attitudes towards cannabis, blowback from the misuse of Dixie edibles, a painful divorce, and unfounded rumors he was forced out at Dixie.
Tripp doesn’t talk to the media much since he left Dixie in 2018, and when I spoke to him recently for this piece, I got the sense he was happy to keep a lower profile and let the next generation of cannabusiness leaders carry the torch. (And take the heat.) However, he was willing to talk to me with great candor about a wide range of issues, both personal and professional. In our raw and very real interview, Tripp – in his typical stentorian manner – talks about the effect of COVID-19 on the industry, why he really left Dixie, whether Trump or Biden is the better candidate for cannabis, the very Enron-meets-herb-meets-Hollywood tale of the Med-Men collapse, battling shifting governmental winds and regulations, his arrest in Alabama, what he does with all that pot money, the future of cannabis, and what it takes to make it in a business filled with so much, as he terms it, just plain “fuckery.”
Note: This will be a multi-part Blunt Truth special. Our conversation has been edited for length, clarity and, of course, fuckery.
David Rock: Tripp, you stepped down as CEO of Dixie Brands, but you have a lot of financial interests remaining in the company and the cannabis industry at-large. How’s Covid-19 affecting Dixie and the cannabis industry overall? Did Dixie Brands ever have to shut down?
Tripp Keber: Dixie never shut down to be perfectly honest with you. We had a limited staff and production in a portion of March and April, but we’d been back to work for two plus weeks. March was the best sales month ever in the history of the company. Not only here in Colorado, but elsewhere and April was only down about 9%, which is pretty good. We’re seeing strong sales in May. I’m confident that year-to-date will be above where we were last year, which is remarkable. We’re really fortunate when you think about how many other people have struggled for such obvious reasons.
David: So then the million dollar question is: why is the cannabis industry doing so well when so many other industries are getting hammered by the pandemic?
Tripp: Well, I think you can apply three theories to it. The first of which is that if you’re going to allow liquor stores to be deemed essential, then you’re probably not going to have much of a choice when it comes to cannabis. Fortunately, we had enough influence over legislators and leadership, not only at the city level, but the state level, that we were able to do that. There’s no question that Governor Polis is pro-cannabis.
Secondarily, I think similar to alcohol and tobacco and medicine, recreational cannabis is something Coloradans could not live without. Mayor Hancock, who’s the mayor of Denver, shut the market down for about 90 minutes and riots ensued almost instantly.
Third, when you look at the taxes, and more importantly, the jobs that are being created, there’s as many cannabis employees as there are flight attendants in the US (pre-pandemic). Then last year Colorado realized its one billionth tax dollar over the course of nine years, including six with the adult use implementation. One billion with a B is not something to scoff at when you see the economic carnage that’s going to be created post this pandemic, David.
David: So, basically, you’re saying these are drastic times when people really need to self-medicate. Plus, you’re creating jobs for people and revenue for the state when that’s at a premium. But none of that really matters if you hadn’t done all that work – for years – on the political side, does it?
Tripp: Correct, yes. And it didn’t happen overnight. It started 10 years ago as we started to develop influence and we said, “Hey, regulate us like alcohol.” That was Amendment 64, which is how adult use marijuana was passed in the State of Colorado. You’ve seen that replicated time and time again. There’s no coincidence that again, liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries were deemed essential. That was a big win not only for marijuana business owners like myself, but also for employees, people across the industry, and the ancillary businesses that support our own businesses.
David: How did you figure out the social-distancing side of things?
Tripp: It took weeks to iron out the kinks, but we have curbside delivery. We had online pickup. We certainly had social distancing, both inside and outside. The industry is very used to falling in line with regulations that are dropped on you on a Sunday night for implementation on a Monday morning. We generally cooperate. We’ll push back if necessary, but generally the industry is overseen and headed by reasonable people that the state sees as its strategic partners.
David: The state of Colorado – or California and Washington – may see you as a partner, but the federal government is another beast entirely. It’s so bizarre to me that on one hand you’re an essential industry and at the same time – to the federal government – you’re an illegal industry. Tell me how that’s workable?
Tripp: Well, listen, the only thing that is consistent in this industry is change. If you think you understand where the puck is headed, to use an old Wayne Gretzky quote, it’s probably much more of an educated guess.
There’s a real dichotomy for the fact that I pay federal taxes on my annual income, but yet what I do is deemed by the government as an illegal activity. If there’s not a tremendous amount of hypocrisy associated with that, I don’t know what else you call it. Ten years into it, though, many of us are comfortably numb and we don’t raise even an eyebrow for things that, to the general public, it just doesn’t make sense to them.
But at this point, it’s really even a privilege to operate, that’s certainly how I look at it. I do believe that eventually, it will change and maybe it’ll change while I still own the business, but we believe changes are on the horizon for the betterment of the industry and so I’m very, very bullish on it.
David: I was surprised to learn that even in states where cannabis is legal, black market sales are thriving and growing. That obviously eats in to your business. But I’m wondering, why do you think people buy black market pot when they could get it legally?
Tripp: Generally, it’s because the taxation is too high. There’s certainly a price matrix, sensitivity analysis where if you overtax adult-use cannabis the market is just not going to go there. You have markets like the Pacific Northwest, you have Oregon, and you have Northern California where cannabis is falling from the sky. Still, your average consumer, and certainly those that are cannabis curious (meaning new to the product), generally want to go into a dispensary and have that full “Apple Store experience” whatever the fuck that means. The reality is that generally people want to follow the rules, but when you make the rules so egregious to access the plant, they’ll go elsewhere. I do believe there’s fewer and fewer people (buying off the black market).
David: So, regardless of the black market, is there more room for growth in the industry?
Tripp: Everybody thinks that we’ve hit the cap on cannabis sales, using Colorado as an example, I think we hit $1.7 billion last year. But there’s no indication that it’s stopping. Again, March, even, in the midst of this pandemic, was the greatest sales month ever in the history of the state for everybody. So, we haven’t hit that ceiling. More and more people are potentially putting the bottle down, or even better, putting opioids into the toilet and flushing. And reaching out for this powerful plant, which is not a dangerous narcotic, nor is it highly addictive, and clearly it has medicinal value. Your readership, I bet, would probably be willing to really embrace those points. It’s the federal government that for whatever reason, the Jeff Sessions of the world, who are just ignorant, racist fools that don’t.
David: No argument from me there. But since you brought up Jeff Sessions, and we’ve been talking about the politics of cannabis – who do you think would be better for the industry: Biden? Or Trump?
Tripp: I don’t think Joe Biden is a friend to the cannabis industry. I think he’s too stuck in his ways. The reality is I know the current Trump administration has had numerous interactions at the highest levels, including potentially the president himself, with marijuana business owners. I believe President Trump is a laissez-faire president, he’s pro-business. Although he is a teetotaler and he lost a brother to alcoholism, I don’t think that necessarily he is fearful of marijuana and I would suggest his children, who I think have a tremendous amount of influence, probably believe the same.
Every presidential candidate on the Democratic side seemingly had some position on it. Some just saying, “Full-on full legalization if you elect me president.” Right? But I think it will potentially be better if the current administration stays in place as it relates to marijuana. That’s the only comment I’m going to make about the current administration. That’s my inherent belief, not only with respect to federal legalization, but in advance of the Safe Banking Act, which is going to be of paramount importance to really showing the necessary acceleration within the industry.
David: You think Trump would be better for cannabis? We’ll agree to disagree on that.
David: Are you a registered Republican?
Tripp: No, I’m not. I did not vote for Trump in the last election. I’ll leave it at that. [laughs]
David: Okay, once last question on that issue. What’s your take on recent reports that Bill Barr basically went rogue to launch investigations into several cannabis companies because he’s personally anti-marijuana?
Tripp: Nothing surprises me these days. Whether it be Barr or that racist lunatic, Jeff Sessions, we – the industry – are comfortably numb to the discrimination and hypocrisy we face on a daily basis. I don’t give much thought to these revelations.
David: I think that’s actually a good segue to asking you about what I’ve heard you term as the “fuckery” of the cannabis business? What is the fuckery and what makes it so intolerable to work in this industry at times?
Tripp: I think fuckery is a term that describes the hypocrisy or the lack of just general acceptable business practices that you would expect if you were making donuts, you think would apply to cannabis, but they don’t.
Level one fuckery is me playing a practical joke or maybe teasing you if you’re a fellow Pot Baron all the way up to level five, whereas there’s still a tremendous amount of competitiveness across the industry and people going after each other using regulators, or potentially even law enforcement, or elected officials to harm another’s business to get ahead. That would be described as level five. We’ve seen seasoned veterans — certainly, here in Colorado — have seen all of it, from one to five, sometimes in the course of a week.
The good news is there’s a tremendous amount of camaraderie. Those situations that describe a level five are probably far and few between, but there is a tremendous amount of fuckery. Again, you would hope that cannabis would be deemed essential across the entire country, but how do you think the adult-use marijuana stores in Massachusetts felt knowing that California and Colorado and Nevada were deemed as essential? (Massachusetts did not get that distinction and shops had to close there amidst the Covid-19 shutdown.) That’s a real tough pill to swallow, level five fuckery by the state of Massachusetts towards the industry.
Again, an industry that is paying tax dollars and creating jobs, but yet they’re not deemed essential whereas liquor stores are? That probably shows an error on the lobbyist side. They didn’t probably have the proper relationships in place. I don’t know. I can’t comment, but that would be certainly something that I would look towards if I was going to learn from a mistake and I owned a cannabis business in the state of Massachusetts.
David: Okay, now before we get to more fun topics on the level of corporate backstabbing and fuckery, let’s talk about something serious. I know you have a fiancée now…
Tripp: I do.
David: But you’ve been a big fish in this rarified pond for a while now. My readers want to know, how often can a Pot Baron expect to get laid? I mean, if I were to become one, what should my expectations be?
Tripp: [laughs] Well, I think I’m going to pass on that question, David, but I’m well-cared for and well-loved. That’s for sure.
(Check out more of my interview with ‘The King of Cannabis’ Tripp Keber in the next edition of The Blunt Truth.)