Ben Lewinger has traveled from the traditional business world to New Mexico’s final frontier: the cannabis industry.
Once an employee of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, Lewinger now runs a much more scrappy, but similar organization: the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.
“It is to my great sorrow to find myself in this position now,” says Lewinger. “I’m a hardcore progressive and often my personal views don’t align with those of the industry.
“What I’m very good at is coming up with ideas and helping people understand the big picture in all situations. I think my niche is to work on really messy and challenging things that are going to make the better world.
Lewinger’s role at the traditional chamber was to run the Albuquerque Reads program, which pairs volunteer tutors with elementary school students. He was also state director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and director of the New Mexico Community Foundation.
But her biggest projects came with her role at Strategies 360, a national public policy and marketing firm. Lewinger was part of the team that helped launch the New Mexico United football team, and he worked on a successful tax-raising proposal for the BioPark in 2015. He now runs the marketing company Fable Communications with a childhood best friend.
But Lewinger still holds on to a childhood dream: to become a teacher of religion.
“I think religion creates and conveys meaning,” says Lewinger. “This is how we transfer what is important and what counts from generation to generation. From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a teacher of religion. So if any of your readers work at UNM or CNM…”
How did you get involved in the cannabis chamber?
“I got sucked into it. I’m not a cannabis advocate. I take every opportunity to acknowledge that there are advocates who have been working on this for decades in New Mexico. I was just introduced this opportunity to step in and take more than nine months out of existence.I think cannabis is going to be fun and challenging for a while.
Did anything surprise you about the rollout of recreational marijuana?
“I always say that everything in this industry is 20% more difficult and 15% more expensive. There are things you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t really done your homework or worked for one of the old operators. For example, there’s a federal tax code that essentially prohibits cannabis businesses from writing off traditional business expenses, which can be problematic if you haven’t budgeted for it and have a pretty tight margin. One of the advantages, which is also perhaps one of the weaknesses, is that it is so easy to obtain a license that I think, unfortunately, a lot of companies will give in. It’s a super competitive and highly regulated industry. Profit margins are pretty tight, despite what people would have you believe.
What was your first job?
“I lied about my age, I think when I was 15, and got a job as a dishwasher. And then after six months I was in the kitchen. It was (a) bar and grill in the eastern mountains. I grew up in Tijeras. And I cooked for other restaurants and… I was a really good bartender. I think I liked the mind-numbing ability, in the process of cooking, trying to whip up several things at the same time, so that everything is hot when it’s served, and I think that’s the best distraction ever.
How did you arrive at the goal of a teacher of religion?
“I remember the moment. I was at Best Price Books and Coffee. I was sitting there with my friends…and we were doing this thing where we would give each other time, and we would go get a book and bring it back and discuss it. And I always brought back religious books. I remember thinking, “I want to teach this, because it’s so cool. I chose my undergraduate (education), based on their religion department, at Tufts University.
What are your favorite places in the world?
“Hawaii, obviously, because I went to school there (graduating). But I had a very serious scooter accident in Hawaii and convinced the university… to give me a year off to work on my thesis (in) Taiwan. My thesis was on animal-headed demons in Chinese and Jewish folk religion. If you want to study Chinese religion, Taiwan was the only place to do it. Many religious institutions, systems and ways of thinking exist in Taiwan that no longer exist in China. And it really was a great place. And I love New Mexico.
Do you have any regrets?
“No. I just paid off my college loans a few months ago.
Do you have any quirks?
“I’m a fan of The Simpsons (TV show). When I was in college in Boston, I had roommates, who are still some of my best friends, and ‘The Simpsons’ was on at 5 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Those were the days. Friends, always, we’ll be texting about really cryptic things from The Simpsons. It’s a contest of who actually knows what we’re talking about. I’ve watched a lot of “Star Trek the Next Generation” lately, which I really appreciate because it was one of the things my dad and I did together every Saturday.
Who inspires you?
“Jean-Luc Picard (a fictional character from the Star Trek series) because he was the captain who led a team that boldly went where no one had gone before.”
THE BASICS: Ben Jacob Lewinger, 42, born in Albuquerque; married to Vanesa Lewinger since 2011; two children, Makena, 8, and Willa Leona, 5; three pets, Ubie, a brown dog, and Ziggy and Gandalf, both cats; MA in Asian Religions, University of Hawaii, 2008; Certificate in Mandarin, National Taiwan Normal University, 2006; BA in Comparative Religion, Tufts University, 2002.
POSTS: Executive Director, New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce since 2019; co-founder, Fable Communications, since 2019; Senior Vice President, Strategies 360, 2015-2019; State Executive Director, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 2013-15; Director of Communications and Collaborative Partnerships, Community Foundation of New Mexico, 2012-13; Vice President of Reads and Leadership, Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, 2010-2012.
OTHER: Board Member, Paws and Stripes, since 2016; appointed member, Bernalillo County DWI Planning Council, since 2012; founding board member of the Young Nonprofit Professional Network of New Mexico, 2011-2016.