Ben Lewinger has journeyed from the world of traditional business to the latest New Mexico frontier: the cannabis industry.
Once an employee of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, Lewinger now leads a much “scrappier,” but similar, organization: the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s much to my chagrin to find myself in this position now,” Lewinger says. “I am a hard-core progressive, and oftentimes, my personal views don’t align with the views of industry.
“What I do know how to do really well is broker ideas and help people understand bigger picture things in all situations. I think my niche is working on really messy, challenging things that are going to make the world a better place.”
Lewinger’s role at the traditional chamber was heading the Albuquerque Reads program, which pairs volunteer tutors with elementary students. He also has been state director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a director at the New Mexico Community Foundation.
But his biggest projects came with his role at Strategies 360, a nationwide public policy and marketing firm. Lewinger was on the team that helped launch the New Mexico United soccer team, and he worked on a successful tax-boost proposal for the BioPark in 2015. He now runs the Fable Communications marketing company with a childhood best friend.
But Lewinger still holds fast to a childhood dream: becoming a religion teacher.
“I think religion creates and conveys meaning,” Lewinger says. “It’s how we move what’s important and what matters from generation to generation. From a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a religion teacher. So if any of your readers works at UNM or CNM …”
How did you get involved in the cannabis chamber?
“I was suckered into it. I’m not a cannabis advocate. I take every opportunity I can to recognize that there are advocates who have been working on this for literally decades in New Mexico. I was just presented with this opportunity to step in and take over nine months into its existence. I think cannabis is going to be fun and challenging for awhile.”
Did anything surprise you about the rollout of recreational marijuana?
“I always say everything in this industry is 20% harder and 15% more expensive. There are things that unless you have really done your homework or unless you worked for one of the legacy operators, you wouldn’t know. Like there’s a federal tax code that basically prohibits cannabis businesses from writing off traditional business expenses, which if you didn’t budget for that and you’re running a pretty narrow margin, that can be problematic. One of the benefits that is also maybe one of the weaknesses is it’s so easy to get a license that I think, unfortunately, lots of businesses will turn over. It’s a super competitive industry, and it’s highly regulated. The profit margins are pretty narrow, 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 East Mountains. I grew up in Tijeras. And I cooked for some other restaurants and … I was a really good bartender. I think I liked the mind-numbing ability, in the process of cooking, of trying to get several things to come up at the same time, so everything is hot when it’s served. And I think that’s the best distraction ever.”
How did you arrive at the goal of religion teacher?
“I remember the moment. I was at Best Price Books and Coffee. I was sitting there with my friends … and we would do this thing where we would give ourselves some time, and we would go and look for a book and bring it back and discuss it. And I would always bring back religion books. I remember thinking, ‘I want to teach this, because it’s so cool.’ I picked my undergraduate (education), based on their religion department, at Tufts University.”
Where are your favorite places in the world?
“Hawaii, obviously, because I went to (graduate) school there. But I got in a really bad 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 popular religion. If you want to study Chinese religion, Taiwan was the only place to do it. Lots of religious institutions and systems and ways of thinking exist in Taiwan still that don’t exist in China anymore. And that was a really 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 Simpsons (TV show) fan. 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, 5:30, 10 and 10:30. Those were the days. My friends, still, we’ll text about really cryptic Simpsons things. It’s a contest of who actually knows what we’re talking about. I have been watching a lot of ‘Star Trek the Next Generation,’ lately, which I really enjoy because that was one of the things my dad and I did together every Saturday.”
Who inspires you?
“Jean-Luc Picard (a fictional character in 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; master’s degree in Asian religions, University of Hawaii, 2008; certificate in Mandarin language, National Taiwan Normal University, 2006; bachelor’s in comparative religion, Tufts University, 2002.
POSITIONS: 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, New Mexico Community Foundation, 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.