Inside the Company Helping Native Americans Grow Cannabis
We talk to the founder of cannabis cultivation company Ultra Health after their appearance on the most recent episode of Weediquette.
North of Las Vegas's bustling, fluorescent strip sits the Paiute Nation tribe. Like many other Native American tribes across the United States, they've suffered from and struggled with poverty, depression, and alcoholism. With dwindling numbers—only 56 adult members currently remain as a result of blood quantum laws—the Paiutes are facing the reality of losing their culture forever.
As detailed on last week's episode of VICELAND's Weediquette, the Las Vegas Paiute Smoke Shop is the lifeblood of the Paiutes, providing the reservation with 85 to 90 percent of its revenue. With the tribe's fragile economic stability threatening to buckle, tribal leaders are searching for new ways to utilize the smoke shop for a desperately needed revenue boost.
Enter Duke Rodriguez, founder and CEO of the Arizona-based medical cannabis company Ultra Health. Before founding the company, Rodriguez oscillated between positions in government and healthcare, making him the ideal candidate for the booming medical cannabis industry. "You need to have a medical background to communicate with the Department of Health Services," he tells me over the phone. "You have to understand about dispensing and how clinics operate."
Founded in Arizona in 2011, Ultra Health assisted those who won licenses for medical cannabis to establish the state's first dispensaries and cultivation facilities. It didn't take long for Rodriguez to realize that tribes like the Paiutes were ripe for the benefits—and astronomical profits—cannabis could provide. With the lofty goal of harvesting 18,000 plants every three months to generate more than $100 million in revenue, those numbers are exactly what the tribe needs to end the financial decay that threatens their existence—and traceability systems to monitor cannabis growth ensure that those profits stay within the tribe and out of the federal government's hands.
We spoke to Rodriguez about Ultra Health, cannabis's distorted history within the United States, and the plant's potential to empower the country's sovereign nations in operating their own forms of trade both with and separately from the United States government.
VICE: How did you establish yourself in the cannabis community?
Duke Rodriguez: Cannabis [use] in states like Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado all started as medical programs. They weren't recreational. So from day one, we've focused on medical cannabis.
Does Ultra Health work on legislative efforts toward wider cannabis legalization?
Without a question, yes. In New Mexico, we supported legislation that got to their senate floor earlier this year. We produced studies, did surveys, presented to legislators, and contributed to politicians. There's no question that we're actively and politically engaged.
What made you so passionate about cannabis?
We all had some exposure in college—we inhaled and experienced it. Once you begin to understand the pejorative nature of marijuana, though, you really understand the medical value of cannabis. Most Americans tend to believe marijuana and cannabis are the same, but that's not true. It's somewhat ignorant to call it marijuana—no offense, but it is.
How did the term "marijuana" come to be widely used?
Around the world, no one uses the word "marijuana." It's not a scientific term—there's no plant in the world called "marijuana." The genus is cannabis. In the 1930s, Harry Anslinger was the former deputy of the Department of Revenue for alcohol; prohibition had ended, and he faced an elimination of one-third of his entire agency, so they found a new boogeyman. Cannabis was 100 percent legal at the time, and they didn't go after the other products that were legal at the time—opium, cocaine—because they didn't want to target the majority white population. So they came for cannabis, which was actively and safely used by minorities—particularly Latinos, blacks, and Native Americans. Anslinger needed something to scare people, so he came up with the phrase "marijuana." That's all it is. There's no science behind it. Understanding history makes you never want to use the word "marijuana" again. It's very offensive.
What drew you to working with Native American tribes?
We recognized from day one that if anybody's going to positively utilize cannabis in this country, it's native people. They have many competitive advantages—they own land, they have water and access to power, and they have a historical and cultural tie to cannabis and natural healing. They also have a distribution network—smoke shops, reservations, and casinos across the country. It's clear that cannabis will bring what casinos originally did for tribes to the next level. We started communicating with and educating tribes across the country. It's a long process.
We worked with the Paiute for more than two years. You have to overcome 85 years of prohibition—of being told "just say no," of the tribe not having economic independence, and of their sovereignty being violated. It's not an easy process for them to overcome, and they're doubtful sometimes. They wonder what's really in it for them—is this going to be another venture taking advantage of the tribe?
How far have you come with the Paiute tribe's medical cannabis effort?
We've successfully broken ground on their main street, and we're actually building what is likely to be the single largest cultivation facility in the United States, as well as the single largest Native American venture into cannabis. It's being watched by everyone from federal authorities, to other tribes, to the state of Nevada. By late fall of 2016, there will be plants cultivated on Native American land, and we hope to have a firm opening this coming January.
The Weediquette episode addresses how other tribes' attempts at growing medical cannabis have failed. How are the Paiutes' efforts different?
There's always the potential of the feds coming in—they'll never be able to seize the property because it belongs to the sovereign nation, but they could potentially arrest individuals, including myself. But the Department of Justice has been very clear: If you operate within the state's rules, and your system is "robust and compliant," you don't have to anticipate that the feds will step in. The biggest problem is the potential for the product to end up in the black market—but we've been transparent. This is a relationship between the federal government and the tribe, not the tribe and the state. If we respect the rules of the federal government, the federal government will respect the role of the sovereign nation.
What do you see for the future of sovereign nations and cannabis?
We'll continue to invest ourselves and our efforts in partnering with tribes across this country. We've already made that model quite visible in Nevada—it's brought the interest of many tribes across the country who have made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas to see what the Paiutes have done there. Most of them are walking away not only impressed, but also contemplating what it could do for their people.
Over time, a good majority of the 600 tribes across the country will at some point be actively engaged in cannabis. Whether tribes will be able to move projects from tribal nation to tribal nation unfettered will be the game changer. Imagine the powerful logistic system the tribes will have when that happens. These are separate governments, and their relationship is not with the state—their treaties are between that tribal nation and the United States government, and every one of these tribes has a right to enter into relationships with the United States government, and other tribes, and to have trade with those tribes uninterrupted by the United States government.
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