California and Canada have been leading the west in cannabis production for a while but lately, things are really taking off. Canada legalized medical marijuana back in 2001, a couple of years after California made the same move. Then, in 2016, Californians voted to legalize adult-use cannabis, which was rolled out in 2018, and Canada followed suit yet again later the same year. But while the Great White North and the Golden Coast have been ahead of the legalization curve for quite some time, both rollouts have faced significant challenges. Legislation aimed at “protecting the kids” in Canada and US federal restrictions requiring all THC products to remain in the state can make it an extreme uphill battle to build a bigger brand.
Despite the hurdles, though, California has long boasted a sterling reputation for the highest quality cannabis (second only to Hawaii, perhaps) in the United States. In fact, many consider California grass to be the best bud in the world. According to a long-running poll cited in Medium, Canadians have overwhelmingly agreed with the statement, “Smoking marijuana should not be a criminal offence,” and nowadays, approximately five million Canadians smoke pot at least once a month. Now, there’s a burgeoning partnership between Canada and California stemming from the prolific greenhouses and fields that have captivated their residents and tourists for years, and there are a few select people and companies to thank for really making that come to fruition.
Burb is a British Columbia-based, high-quality, culture-minded cannabis retailer and merchandiser. Led by John Kaye, CEO and Creative Director, Burb was founded to support artists and creative movements. “In a time of corporate cannabis takeover, we set out to build a brand that kept the bridge between cannabis and the arts alive, so we built weed stores that gave us plenty of cash flows to put back into the community,” said Kaye.
The Burb CEO toured across North America in his youth, playing in a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band. But it was the business side that interested him in the end. He got his diploma at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, briefly suffered through a trying job in finance, and then called BCIT classmate Clayton Chessa to build Northern Vine, a cannabis testing lab.
After that, Kaye saw an opportunity to get back to his artistic roots while also supporting a community struggling against the restrictions of legalization. Kaye and Clayton enlisted the help of childhood friend Steve Dowsley and started Burb with an idealistic vision and the drive to make it a reality. “For me, a great brand is defined as a real community. It’s not the logo. It’s not the packaging. It’s on-the-ground relationships — late nights and being in the…trenches,” he said.
Today, Burb has five licenses and three Burb-branded dispensaries in Vancouver. They also have three more on the way, including the first-ever dispensary on a college campus at the University of British Columbia. The team then established a merchandise line that includes apparel and smoking equipment and a media arm to produce content from industry leaders like Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits. Kaye’s goal is to honor the legacy and also design the future of cannabis culture.
Looking to broaden their horizons, the team at Burb started working towards establishing a presence in California.
“For us, there’s a big crossover to the music space. We were already doing it. When Problem’s team approached us to be in his video with Wiz (Kalifa), we started to consider the bigger opportunity, especially after learning about the cannabis business he was building in Cali,” Kay said. Wiz Khalifa’s brand, Khalida Kush, has been expanding outside of the Western U.S. recently, making it all the way to Michigan in a partnership with Gage Growth earlier this year.
For the creators of Burb, what began as product placement in Problem and Wiz’s video became a dream collaboration. Problem, born Jason Martin, was looking to get more involved in cannabis. Other brands throughout Kaye’s career had monetized Problem, and he now saw an opportunity with his last contracted album to build something for himself and his community. Originally intended to be a line of merchandise, he created Coffee & Kush, which turned into more of a lifestyle brand.
Having grown up with a mom who grew and smoked cannabis for as long as he could remember, Problem didn’t see the allure of pot when he was young. When faced with the stress of having his first child, he used cannabis for the first time after, ironically, his mother eventually convinced him to try it.
“My mom was the one who was like, ‘You need to smoke. You’re taking on a whole lot at a very young age.” He explained, “So I tried it, and it became part of my lifestyle, in my day-to-day.” Problem said. “I’m smoking, doing music. Smoking, doing music.” At first, music was something Problem did purely for fun (and to impress women) but it soon became his primary focus. After success with music, Problem set to work.
“It just came to me: Coffee & Kush. This is what I’m rapping about all day because this is what I’m doing all day. What I’m using to finish this album,” Problem said. “It was really just a unique way to brand the music. Then I figured, so many companies have used me to sell their products, if I’m going to start talking about Coffee & Kush all the time, I need to have my own products. I use my own content to push my own products, not the other way around.”
His friend Mike Asseraf suggested a pre-roll line and bam, things started to take off. After putting the pieces together for the Burb video, Problem remembered a story his wife had told him about someone named Jason McKnight.
Born in Los Angeles, McKnight moved to Northern California at a young age and began learning about cannabis throughout his youth. Living with family who dealt cannabis as their primary source of income, the herb was a way to make ends meet. Both Problem and McKnight had to set aside dreams of a professional sports career (basketball and football, respectively) but in the end, both ultimately found tremendous success in the cannabis industry.
“It was a survival tool,” said McKnight. “I wanted to make some money. It was a hustle. I didn’t even smoke weed at first. I didn’t want to do drugs. I had seen drugs destroy lives. But it became something that I loved. I was stressed out; I was by myself, and I smoked some weed. My life changed instantly. It was the medicine I needed in life to really calm me down.”
Eventually, McKnight became the connection for friends to get good weed. He started thinking about his future when a friend approached him in 2001 with a $6,400 pound of OG. McKnight recognized the growing need for indoor cultivation. “I was self-taught at that point because indoor cultivation, that wasn’t the information that people shared. It was very hush-hush. I perfected it, learning the hard way, going through the ups and downs. It wasn’t always a success.”
McKnight prevailed after being raided by LA County Sheriff Narcos, having his three children taken away (returned after 11 months, and happy at home ever since), facing additional felony charges, and being sentenced to jail time despite Proposition 64 passing during all of this – the bill that legalized adult-use in California.
Not willing to let anything stop him, McKnight founded and branded Green Label RX and is now running numerous facilities, growing some of the best cannabis in California, and has partnered with top brands and breeders across the world. He had been white-labeling for other brands when Burb and Problem approached him.
The combination of Burb’s understanding of retail logistics and branding, Green Label’s legacy cultivation skills, and Problem’s creative and marketing engine led to quick and boisterous success. Their partnership represents their collective understanding that there’s room for everyone in cannabis and cannabis is for everyone.
“And that’s kind of the social equity thing like you have two groups that come together. You have one person that, obviously he’s gone through the system, whether it’s a conviction or whatever, an arrest that’s cannabis-related, and then you have another group that’s supposed to bring the financing or someone that knows how to run a business,” McKnight said.
Kaye noted, “We are not growers ourselves; we always come from the consumer mindset, and we know what we like. We partner with the best — we’re curators first and foremost. When I came down here [to California], and I saw what was happening, I was convinced. This is an incredible team.”
“Burb — they’re living in the future. So you’ve got to exchange information. It’s not about who gets what. It’s about the minds melding,” Problem said of their collaborative team.
First, there was the CA launch of Burb’s cannabis goods at Hall of Flowers, which included cultivars such as Butter Tarts and Beaver Tail. Next came Green Label’s eighths and their new line of hemp blunts, which also power Burb’s Beaver Tail Blunts (which include a plastic beaver tail mouthpiece). Then, Problem released his Coffee & Kush cannabis line exclusively through Wonderbrett in Black, Cappuccino, and Mocha varietals.
The group has plenty of new projects on the horizon: Benny’s prerolls, Roots Genetics (McKnight’s breeding and development company), and Burb’s California retail stores.
“I’m pinching myself because this is it. This is the dream.” said McKnight “I’m so excited for these next few years in the cannabis space, just to grow and to try and achieve even higher goals.”