Joe Exotic might be getting out of prison earlier than expected after a federal court on Wednesday overturned his 22-year sentence for his conviction in a murder-for-hire plot and multiple violations of federal wildlife laws. But no matter if Joe Exotic stays in prison, or gets released early, it seems his goal this summer is to get people stoned.
Later this month, the mulleted, gun-toting former zookeeper’s cannabis brand Joe’s Exotics will launch with Delta-8-THC products, including pre-rolled joints, gummies and cannabinoid-infused seltzer aptly named “Tiger Piss,” across 37 states. (Delta-8, the most exciting, and most psychoactive compound in the hemp industry, is legal to sell outside of regulated dispensaries thanks to a legal loophole.) Later this summer, his brand will launch THC products—flower, vaporizers, and joints—in dispensaries in California with an eye to expand to Nevada and Oklahoma in the fall.
Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldanado-Passage, was sentenced in January 2020 after being convicted of hiring two people to kill animal rights activist Carole Baskin—she’s still alive; the plots were unsuccessful—and multiple violations of the Endangered Species Act for killing and selling tiger cubs. But this week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that Maldanado-Passage’s sentence was calculated incorrectly because the trial court treated the two murder-for-hire convictions separately. By not grouping the two counts, Maldanado-Passage received a longer sentence than he should have.
“The district court erred by not grouping the two murder-for-hire counts,” the three-judge panel wrote in its opinion.
Maldonado-Passage, who is better known to millions as Joe Exotic from the Netflix series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, said during a phone call recorded by one of his lawyers that his sentence being vacated is “the best news I’ve had in a long time.”
His conviction was upheld, but his case will go back to court for re-sentencing.
John Phillips, one of the attorneys representing Maldonado-Passage, says he’s filing a dozen motions in an effort to get a new trial. “We’re trying to get him out,” says Phillips.
But to pay for a new legal fight, Joe Exotic needs money. And that’s where his cannabis brand comes in. Aptly named Joe’s Exotics, the brand is a licensing agreement he cut with Jason Hervey, who played Wayne Arnold in the beloved late-‘80s sitcom The Wonder Years, and a cannabis branding entrepreneur Joshua Anderson.
Maldonado-Passage sold his likeness and nickname for a “healthy” advance and a stake in the business venture. Bradley Small, Maldonado-Passage’s entertainment lawyer, would not reveal the financials of the deal, but said that the money will be put into a trust and go towards his legal defense fund.
Joe’s Exotics will not grow its own cannabis; it partnered with Xotic Flavorz, a small-batch cannabis farm in the Honeydew Valley in Humboldt County, California’s weed country.
“People probably assumed this would be a gimmicky brand, but we are genuinely going to have some of the best cannabis in the state,” says Anderson.
The Joe’s Exotics brand is centered around the lampooning and taunting of his rival and critic Carole Baskin. The company’s flagship cannabis flower strain is an indicia that boasts 30% THC content—a mind-bending potency—that’s named “Baskinz.” On the packaging, a tiger is depicted urinating on a tombstone with the name “Carole.”
“The beauty of working with someone as iconic as Joe is that we can get away with anything,” says Anderson.
This would not be the first time the Tiger King trolled Baskin. The feud between Joe Exotic and Baskin, who owns Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary for exotic felines in Tampa, Florida, has been going on for years. The judges in the appeals court referred to the saga between the two as a “rivalry made in heaven.”
Years ago, before he wound up in prison for the murder-for-hire plot, Baskin spoke out against Maldonado-Passage’s business, which charged visitors to pet and take pictures with tiger cubs. Baskin sent protesters to Maldonado-Passage’s road show events and he retaliated by naming his show “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment” to mimic the name of Baskin’s sanctuary. She won a $1 million copyright infringement lawsuit against him, he filed for bankruptcy and then took to Facebook, where he posted a picture of himself posing in a coffin with the caption, “I bought my good friend in Florida a Christmas present.” In another trolling post, he uploaded a video of himself firing a gun at a blow doll dressed like Baskin.
The feud climaxed when Maldonado-Passage paid one of his employees to travel to Tampa and kill Baskin, according to court records. The employee ended up partying and never carrying out the murder. The Tiger King was then introduced to someone who, unbeknown to him, was an undercover FBI agent and he was eventually arrested after making plans to have the man kill Baskin for $10,000, court records show.
Small, Joe Exotic’s entertainment lawyer, said the packaging is meant as a joke and that he’s happy the tiger is the one urinating on Baskin’s grave, not his client.
Hervey says the branding and packaging is tongue-in-cheek. “If she wants to be up tight, I guess the only thing I’d suggest is to smoke some and chill out,” says Hervey.
When asked if she had a response to Joe Exotic’s trolling, Baskin says she’s not paying attention to much else besides her cats. “I’m staying focused on the goal, which is a world where all wild cats live free, so Joe [Maldonado-Passage’s] taunts from prison don’t get to live rent free in my head,” she says.
Joe Exotic, who used to own one of the country’s largest tiger petting zoos, is known for outrageous stunts but he’s serious about cannabis. He’s a long-time supporter of legalization. In 2016, Maldonado-Passage ran unsuccessfully for president and for Oklahoma governor two years later as a libertarian who supported legalizing medical marijuana. (He passed out campaign-branded rolling papers during a convention in 2018.)
The elephant in the room is that Maldonado-Passage is a guest of the federal government and marijuana is still illegal under federal law. However, his lawyer Phillips says he doesn’t see Joe Exotic licensing his name for a weed brand as an issue. In fact, he sees it as a way he can finance his way out of prison.
“I’m all for it,” says Phillips. “Joe has medical issues and no income, despite his fame outside. Anywhere he can use his name and brand to pay for lawyers, get medical treatment and everything else he needs while in prison, I support.”