Pharmaceutical Daily has conducted an interview with Duke Rodriguez, the CEO of Ultra Health, the company that has opened the first pharmaceutical cannabis factory in the USA.
The Ultra Health CEO answered questions about hurdles of a cannabis company, as most banks in the US cannot legally do business with such companies, and what is the new administration in the White House stand on legalizing cannabis.
PD: Mr.Rodriguez, thank you very much for accepting this interview. For the beginning, could you tell us generally about the company, how did it all start, and when?
D.R.: Ultra Health, founded in late 2010, is a turnkey solutions provider for the specialty medical cannabis industry. Ultra Health partners with a broad spectrum of businesses and Tribal Nations to design, formulate and manage cannabis-related economic development opportunities that are profitable, scalable and mutually beneficial. Ultra Health currently has locations in multiple US states including New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.
PD: What hurdles you had to cross before starting cannabis business, as global talk about legalizing cannabis, and making it available for medical purposes, changed through the years?
D.R.: One challenge for the early years was no capital. There are no banks, lenders or investors. A few individuals have to put up their own personal assets and make their own high risk personal investments. That situation with no financing has been the biggest obstacle keeping cannabis from having a strong foothold in the marketplace.
Most lending or banking institutions in the US cannot legally do business with cannabis companies. While money to invest is tight, there are lofty expectations by those who are providing services whether they be construction, goods or services. They have these belief systems that there is so much money in this industry, which leads to inflated rates to buy services.
PD: Recent political decisions in the USA suggest that cannabis could be more available for medical use, and possibly for recreational use. During Obama administration, things moved in favor of cannabis legalization. Do you think that this administration would slow down that trend?
D.R.: That’s the million dollar question. Early indications were that the new administration in the White House would be pro-state’s rights, which would mean they would let these laboratories of democracy continue on their own. But that message has now been muddied by most recent comments that indicate they may be interested in restricting those areas of adult use and probably remaining neutral on areas related to medical cannabis.
The single largest state in the country, California, which is also the 8th largest economy in the world, will really be the bellwether for whether adult use will be allowed to expand. If it occurs in California, then there’s probably no way to put the genie back in the bottle.
If it slows down in California, you can anticipate it will slow down across the country.
PD: What’s the situation with recreational use of cannabis? What do conservative folks think about your company, do you get comparison with street sellers?
D.R.: There’s no question that the entire general population is moving more favorably toward cannabis. Support is increasing across generally all demographic groups, the young and the old, but the level of acceptance is varied based upon age and sex. The younger they are, male or female, the support is strong – as high as a 70 to 80 percent approval rating. The older they get, the approval rating or the acceptability to cannabis drops to slightly less than 50 percent of the population over the age of 65. The acceptability drops even lower for women over the age of 65.
We are finding across different groups, the more educated you are and the more wealthy you are, the more open you are to cannabis. The less educated you are, meaning you are unaware of the benefits or uses of cannabis, and the lower income basis, you seem to have more questions about the validity of cannabis. Cannabis acceptability is now crossing all ethnicities, ages and political parties. All groups are
trending favorably toward greater acceptance.
PD: You are the first such factory in the USA. Do you think that possible competition would wait to see how you would do it, or is this a rather safe investment? Do you
expect any competition in any near future?
D.R.: I think there is a recognition in the marketplace that the popularity of cannabis in its raw form will increasingly be priced as a commodity. The real return in the marketplace will be obtained by value added activities which include the complexity, purity and potency of cannabis. We will generally move away from smokeable products to more advanced dosage specific products and more medically oriented products that look pharmaceutical in quality and presentation.
PD: Recently, the state of Israel legalized recreational use of cannabis, but it is still illegal to grow it. What is the chance for you to actually export your products
there? Do you have any plans on exporting cannabis-based products, are there
options for licensing abroad?
Israel actually officially decriminalized cannabis rather than legalizing it for adult use. I think at some point cannabis will be available for export. But before that becomes a reality in the US, we first need to allow cannabis to cross state lines. These will be step fashion changes the industry will have to accept that will probably not necessarily happen in the shortest time, perhaps in the next 5 years. I think long before that there is a greater probability the Israelis or others will export their products to the US. I think the international markets have been far more progressive in how they see cannabis, and I think it’s more likely we will be importing quality cannabis from other countries before the US exports it.
PD: Legalizing recreational use of cannabis should boost a country’s income and reduce illegal drug dealing related crime. What is the situation with the medical cannabis in the USA compared to illegal sales on the streets?
D.R.: There is no question that every dollar put into legal medical and adult use cannabis is a dollar removed from the black market. Already in the US we have seen cartels recognizing that cannabis cultivation is less of a profitable activity. Less cannabis fields are being developed in Mexico, which has been the primary source of illegal marijuana in the US. It is likely cartels will move into other lucrative markets like poppy fields for heroin, or cocaine. But as to cannabis specifically, any growth of legalized cannabis is a reduction of black market or cartel activities.
PD: After Israel’s recently allowing recreational use of cannabis, and possibly a new European country could soon do the same. Is there a chance that your Israel-based partner Panaxia to sell the products in Israel, or in the region?
D.R.: Decriminalization is a big step in the right direction and probably at some point will lead to legalized adult use. But, these are all step fashion decisions that expand the use of cannabis. I don’t think decriminalization causes growth in the market, it just takes the market from the underworld and brings it into an open environment where it is properly regulated and taxed.
PD: Media in from Bosnia and Herzegovina talked about a man who said he fought a deadly disease with cannabis-based oil that he illegally imported from Slovenia. He talked about it openly with a slogan on his shirt “better to be illegally alive than to be legally dead”. What can be done to make cannabis-based products available for more people even in the countries where recreational use won’t be legalized any time soon?
D.R.: I think the successful adoption of cannabis in any city, state or country has to do solely with education. The more we learn about the beneficial uses of cannabis, the more likely society will begin to understand and accept that cannabis is a good therapeutic alternative.
Most of this new learning has to occur with some basic research, expanded research and realistically has to move to the use of human studies. Cannabis has to move from being tested on lab rats, where we know it is very effective, and eventually be used in clinical trial involving humans using the gold standard of the double blind study.
PD: Is there anything you would like to bring up that we didn’t cover in the interview, which you think is important to be said?
D.R.: Cannabis discovery cannot occur in a vacuum. There is meaningful research certainly being led by scientists in Israel. Other countries will catch up, and there will be a need for some cross collaboration. Cannabis can be much different than traditional research for pharmaceutical grade products because it is still a naturally occurring plant. And as such, it makes it very difficult for any individual, company or country to take proprietary ownership of the plant. Because it is a plant in the public domain I think it affords us greater collaboration than we generally have in new medical discoveries.