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Legal cannabis advocate celebrates win in New Mexico | Local News

At 62, Duke Rodriguez is still running.

Not like he did in high school some 45 years ago, but as president and CEO of New Mexico Top Organics-Ultra Health, the state’s largest medical cannabis operation with annual sales in the $40 million range.

The business, which has 25 facilities around the state, employs about 250 people. And Rodriguez — who has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into state legislative races to support cannabis-friendly lawmakers — plans to move into the retail cannabis business as soon as possible.

A mortal enemy of stasis and prone to brassy pronouncements followed by even brassier business moves, Rodriguez was thought to be the X-factor in the discussion about legalization of marijuana during the regular and special sessions of the Legislature. With beaucoup connections, deep experience in government and the ability to influence policy with campaign cash, some speculated he was a major player throughout.

Rodriguez acknowledges he worked hard on the issue and doesn’t deny he donates to candidates. But he also said he did not have a role in the legalization fight after the regular session began in January.

Whether he was a mover and a shaker or simply an interested bystander, one thing is sure: Recreational cannabis is finally a reality in New Mexico. Last week, lawmakers approved a watershed bill that legalizes its use and sale — a move supporters say will lead to some 11,000 jobs and tens of millions, if not more, in new revenue for the state.

The cannabis industry is one made for a distance runner, Rodriguez said.

“I play the longer game,” he said in a recent phone interview. “This industry is not a sprint. It is a marathon. And oftentimes when you are a runner, you have to be a bit of an individual and persevere on your own.”

Rodriguez knows about endurance, having come a long way from the migrant camps of Southern California, where his parents — whose parents were Mexican immigrants — worked the farm fields. It was an environment that fostered survival skills.

Rodriguez remembers seeing a spoon and a powdery substance — the earmarks of drug use — when he was 8. Soon he would be exposed to more drug abuse, as the workers around him and his parents looked for relief from the dead-end nature of their jobs.

“Where there’s pain and suffering and poverty, you tend to find people needing an escape,” Rodriguez said. “I saw hard drugs, I saw heroin, I saw illicit pills and I also saw the use of what people called marijuana.”

Soon, he could count more relatives serving time behind bars for drug-related offenses than those living freely outside those institutions.

In 1970, his father sent Rodriguez, his siblings and mother to Silver City to get away from the danger. His father intended to join them, but he died on a construction job in California.

Rodriguez knew from an early age he wanted to do something that made a difference, so he set his sights on becoming a schoolteacher. But his own teachers, as well as his high school track coach, told him there was no money in that field. Instead, he became an accountant.

That led to a job with Lovelace Inc., where he eventually became the health care provider’s chief financial officer, and later, its CEO. He became secretary of the Human Services Department under Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.

Depending on which version you hear, Rodriguez is still renowned for walking across a table during a Cabinet meeting to either take command of the discussion, or simply find the shortest path to a blackboard to make a point.

Rodriguez later resigned after allegations a company he owned received money from a business under contract to the Human Services Department. He denied any wrongdoing at the time.

Rodriguez found his way back into the business world and discovered a market with medical cannabis, which he says is excellent for dealing with many illnesses and ailments.

“Cannabis is the healthier alternative,” he said.

Rodriguez also is a determined advocate for legalizing recreational cannabis. He said he and other members of his company helped shape the initial draft of the Cannabis Regulation Act, which was passed by the Legislature during last week’s special session and now awaits Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signature.

Though some have speculated Rodriguez was influential with legislators throughout the process, he said he had nothing to do with any changes made to that bill since the regular legislative session began in mid-January. Some things he wanted in the bill are still there, some are not.

“Did we get everything we wanted in the bill? Absolutely not,” he said. “Are there current provisions of that law I’m disappointed in? Absolutely.

“But we have moved away from ‘if and when’ and moved directly to ‘how.’ And that is worth the investment.”

He bemoans the fact the legislation calls for the issuance of businesses licenses to produce or sell recreational cannabis no later than April 1 of next year. He said that could and should happen sooner. And he does not like the three-year cap on plant production, contending businesses need to start providing as much cannabis as possible once the law kicks in.

He said Ultra Health is responsible for a clause in the bill allowing for interstate and international import and export of cannabis if it is legalized under federal law. Then, he said, you’ll see the business boom “just like exporting chile.”

Founded in 2013, Ultra Health was a major contributor to state lawmaker campaign chests during the 2020 campaign, with more than $50,000 in donations to Democratic and Republican candidates, according to the secretary of state’s website.

Rodriguez said $50,000 is a serious undercount. By his own estimate, through other businesses and on his own, he donated “greater than six figures” to those candidates as well as the Democratic caucus.

That candidate list includes Rep. Javier Martínez, an Albuquerque Democrat who was the main sponsor of the cannabis bill, and Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Roswell Republican who authored a competing cannabis bill that was voted down during that special session. Ultra Health gave $5,000 to both of those lawmakers.

“I’m proud of that,” Rodriguez said of his financial campaign support. “We had the fully objective goal of impacting the proper execution of cannabis in New Mexico.”

Rodriguez is not afraid of initiating litigation. Ultra Health recently filed a lawsuit in First Judicial District Court to enforce a judge’s 2018 order for the Department of Health to ensure medical cannabis patients have an adequate supply.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, is representing Ultra Health in the case, which is scheduled to be heard Friday. Candelaria did not return a call seeking comment.

New Mexico lobbyist Dan Weeks has known Rodriguez for years and calls him “a serial entrepreneur.”

“He’s got a broad base of business knowledge,” Weeks said. “He’s very assertive. He’s not risk [averse] at all. He spends a lot of money on advertising, and he’s not afraid to litigate issues he feels correct on.”

Weeks said with a laugh he didn’t want to say more about Rodriguez for fear of being sued.

Rodriguez acknowledged he has made some personal mistakes along his road to success.

“Have I sacrificed a marriage, a family life, in pursuit of building a career? Absolutely,” he said. “I probably work more waking hours and nonwaking hours than most folks can imagine.

“I think that’s why we were put on this earth,” Rodriguez added. “We were made to do good. We were made to build. We were made to improve lives of those around us.”