A former illegal drug dealer who grew up surrounded by high-powered members of the Mexican and Colombian cartel has revealed how he broke away from the black market after multiple run-ins with the law to move into the legal weed trade – which now sees him creating designer strains for a slew of celebrities.
Felipe Recalde, 40, a South Texas native, has become one of the heaviest hitters in the legal marijuana industry, where he designs strains of rare weed for stars like Wiz Khalifa; 2 Chainz; Quavo; and billion-dollar brands like ‘Cookies’.
He’s been in the cannabis business – both illegally and legally – for more than half his life, but his history with drugs goes back much further. His Argentinian uncle was arrested in the eighties for drug trafficking, and his mother’s childhood neighbor, Carlos Lehder, co-founded the Medellín cartel alongside Pablo Escobar.
Recalde was raised by immigrant parents in a Mexican cartel border town and spent his summers vacationing in the Colombian cartel town where his mother and Lehder grew up.
Recalde started dealing drugs when he was 17 and needed money to pay for college. Despite never having smoked weed before, he thought he’d be good at selling it. And he was.
‘At a certain point, if you smoked high-grade weed in South Texas, it came from me,’ Recalde told DailyMail.com.
He’s only been arrested once during his twenty-plus years in the industry, but he’s experienced countless run-ins with law enforcement, including the DEA, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security.
‘I continuously had products seized over the years, and I would take a total loss and have to start all over. I’ve lost everything multiple times in my life’.
Despite weed being legal in California and nearly half the country, it’s still illegal federally which creates massive problems for cannabis companies. Until that changes, Recalde’s not going to stop fighting the persecutory anti-cannabis laws that kept him in hiding for half his life.
Recalde family horseback riding in early 1990s on their family ranch in Colombia, located next door to the childhood home of Carlos Lehder, founder of the Medellin drug cartel
Celebs like 2 Chainz (left) and Kevin Garnett (right) work with Compound Genetics to create custom strains of ‘designer weed’
Recalde pictured smoking weed while wearing a ‘Smoke Better Weed’ sweatshirt by Khalifa Kush, one of the brands that works with Recalde
‘SUPER NERD’ TO SUPER SMUGGLER
Recalde was raised in a cartel border-town in South Texas and spent his summers in a Colombian cartel town where his mother grew up.
He describes his parents as ‘strict’ and ‘conservative’, but their family history was anything but.
On his father’s side, Recalde’s uncle Miguel was arrested in the eighties for drug trafficking. It became a high-profile case that eventually established legal precedent for search and seizure laws in the US.
As Recalde explains it, ‘My last name vs the United States is the bright-line rule for search and seizure. It’s case law for the 4th Amendment where my dad’s brother got caught with cocaine and overturned the case in the Supreme Court as his rights were violated’.
Meanwhile, Recalde’s mother was next-door neighbors with Carlos Lehder, who went on to become Pablo Escobar’s right-hand man and co-founder of the Medellín cartel.
Lehder also helped bring Recalde’s mom to the US from Colombia in the seventies, around the same time the drug lord was running a cocaine-transport empire out of Norman’s Cay island in the Bahamas, about 200 miles off the coast of Florida.
Recalde pictured in his teenage years horseback riding on his family’s Colombian ranch. Despite his parents’ best efforts to shield their children from anything drug-related, their son (right) ended up creating a career out of cannabis. After more than a decade dealing in the black market, he now runs successful legal-marijuana companies
In the late eighties, Lehder was extradited to the US, where he was tried and sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 135 years. Five years later, his sentence was reduced to 55 years in exchange for his testimony against Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega. Lehder’s story was profiled in the 2001 movie ‘Blow’, featuring Jordi Mollà as Lehder and Johnny Depp as ‘Boston George’, Lehder’s former cellmate at Danbury federal prison.
Medellín Cartel co-founder Carlos Lehder’s mugshot from February 1987. Lehder ran a cocaine transport empire out of Norman’s Cay island in the Bahamas. He grew up in Colombia with Recalde’s mom, who denounces drugs because she saw firsthand the damage that it caused her community and the reputation of the country
Also in the late eighties, Recalde started spending his summers with his family in Colombia. He would vacation there from age three until his late teens when his mother deemed it too dangerous to keep going.
The would-be drug smuggler didn’t understand or appreciate the significance of that danger because when he was there, it wasn’t like he was doing drugs or learning the ropes of the drug trade from cartel members.
He couldn’t tell who was in the cartel from who wasn’t:
‘I’ve crossed paths with cartel members. They’re educated, they’re well-spoken, they own legitimate businesses in congruence with their [cartel] operations’
‘They’re pretty sophisticated, and you would never actually know meeting and speaking to them that they’re tied to any sort of illegal drug trade’.
Recalde’s day-to-day was about as innocuous as it gets.
He says he mostly remembers, ‘the country clubs and all the beautiful homes’.
‘I took tennis lessons. We swam in the country club pool. We rode horses on our family’s ranches… It was a lot of fun’.
Recalde didn’t learn about his family’s cartel ties until much later in life.
‘I found out, as an adult, that the neighboring house to my aunt’s house had been the home of a very famous drug trafficker called Carlos Lehder. That was his parents’ house. Carlos grew up right next door to my family.’
As for why his parents kept him in the dark, Recalde admits, ‘My family wouldn’t even say that they have ties to the cartel. They’re so embarrassed by anything related to drugs in general. They’ve spent their whole lives really embarrassed about that.’
Unlike some of their friends, relatives, and neighbors, Recalde’s parents vehemently rejected the cartel lifestyle out of fear of being associated with it, and so did he for a period of time.
Family photo of Recalde (center), his sister (left) and his dad (right) while on vacation in Armenia, Colombia. Recalde’s mother grew up in that town and was next-door neighbors with Lehder, who would later become Pablo Escobar’s right-hand man. Recalling his more than ten summers in Colombia, Recalde says, ‘I just remember the country clubs and the beautiful homes’. He went there from age three until his teens when his mother deemed it too dangerous to keep going
Recalde’s family photos from his summers in Armenia, Colombia – where his mom grew up with Carlos Lehder, one of the most notorious drug lords of all time. When Recalde vacationed there, he wasn’t doing anything remotely related to drugs. He would go swimming, take tennis lessons, and horseback ride on his family’s ranch, which was located next door to Lehder’s childhood home
The future black market weed baron describes himself as a ‘super nerd’ who, from a young age, was building computers, websites, and calculator games.
‘You would have never thought I would’ve gotten into the marijuana industry. This is the last career choice you would’ve ever expected’, laughs Recalde.
As for whether he thinks his family’s background played a role in his decision to become a drug dealer, Recalde asserts, ‘Their history had very little influence on my life choices. It was more, growing up on the Mexican border and in a region that was a high drug-trafficking area and my curiosity around the Internet and marijuana in general’.
FROM CARTELS TO COLLEGE: DRUG DEALING 101
Recalde didn’t enter the world of weed until his freshman year of college when he was 17 years old.
The soon-to-be cannabis connoisseur was a computer science major at University of Texas–Pan American in Edinburg, Texas.
Despite never having done drugs before, for some reason, Recalde thought he’d be good at selling them… And he was.
‘It came natural to me. It ran in my blood in a sense.’
Recalde says it all started when he was, ‘randomly assigned to a dorm room with a drug dealer’.
His roommate asked him to front a couple thousand so they could buy weed in bulk and then sell it. In exchange, Recalde would be compensated and then some. Except, he wasn’t. His roommate lost all the money.
Recalde attended University of Texas Pan American as a computer science major. After his freshman year, Recalde’s friends got raided by the FBI. To avoid getting arrested himself, he dropped out and moved back in with his parents
To make matters worse, around that time, Recalde lost his scholarship. So there he was, without money to pay for food, let alone tuition.
To get out of that hole, he dug himself a bit deeper and bought some more marijuana.
But this time, he did his research and found out what was considered good weed from what wasn’t, how to price it, and who to trust. That worked, until it didn’t.
‘I eventually lost everything when everyone else in my circle got arrested and went to prison’.
Recalde had to lay low, so he moved back in with his conservative parents, who didn’t know why their son dropped out of school.
By day, he was building websites. By night, he would go to and from his parents’ house delivering weed to people. That routine continued for about six months until he got caught.
‘My parents really suffered from that… My mother said she spent her whole life trying to get away from drugs and stay away from all that. For her son to have made that as a career choice, it was very painful for her’.
Out of respect for his parents, Recalde gave up dealing drugs and stuck to his straight-and-narrow career working with computers. That went on for another six months until he came across some tourism websites for South Padre Island.
‘I looked at the websites and they were terrible. I saw an opportunity to make websites for this tourist destination. That was pretty much it’.
So, Recalde moved out of his parents’ house and headed to South Padre island in 2000, where he’d go on to become the marijuana magnate of South Texas.
CANNABIS KING OF THE SOUTH: ‘IF YOU SMOKED HIGH-GRADE WEED IN SOUTH TEXAS, IT CAME FROM ME’
The then-18 year old started a small-scale tech company, SPI Connect, when he moved to South Padre Island.
Recalde says he spent ‘a good year’ building websites, but then he saw an even bigger opportunity… weed.
‘After a year watching, I saw the opportunity. That’s why I showed up with hybrid weed’.
He began sourcing California marijuana from friends like, Adolph Thornton Jr., who’d go on to become the famous rapper, Young Dolph.
Recalde later grew weed himself, ironically enough, at a country club. It was there that he built a South Texas cannabis empire.
‘At a certain point, if you smoked high-grade weed in South Texas, it came from me’, Recalde told DailMail.com.
SPI Connect was a South Padre tech company founded by Recalde in his early 20s. He built websites and fixed computers as one of the only IT guys on the island
Recalde pictured in his early 2000s at a South Padre party with cast members from MTV show, The Real World. At the time Recalde was earning a name for himself as the go-to guy for weed on the island
It was only a matter of time before the Gulf Cartel of Mexico came knocking.
‘As soon as I started bringing high-grade flower to South Texas, the cartel started buying weed from me. They wanted it in Mexico for the cartel bosses’.
So there he was, back to leading his double life – computers by day, cannabis by night.
And that’s how he ‘developed a relationship’ with the Feds.
‘Over those years, I got to know DEA agents, Homeland Security, like everybody because I was one of the town’s only I.T. guys… I removed viruses off of their computers’.
Ultimately, Recalde landed on their radar for other reasons.
‘I also sold iPhones. They had photographs of me with some guys that I was selling cell phones to’, he admits.
‘They asked me what my relationship was with them, and I said, I just sold them phones’.
The Federal agents informed Recalde that the cartel members he was working with were kidnapping Cubans, taking them to Mexico, and selling their organs on the black market.
Recalde remembers, ‘They showed me pictures of some of the victims going into Mexico, and they said, will you sign up to work for us?’
He told them no because he wasn’t a rat, but at the same time he said, ‘There’s things I could do that we morally agree on’.
Recalde (center), pictured celebrating his 27th birthday in South Padre. The South Texas cannabis kingpin was running a couple marijuana grow houses at the country club where he worked. Less than a year after he moved to California, the country club got raided. Recalde says, ‘It was a close call!’
The drug smuggler didn’t sign up as an informant, but he did offer them tips about the cartel members with the cell phones and corrupt local government officials.
Recalde avoided getting arrested but knew that was a cue to leave. Plus, the country club where he was growing weed was going under.
So he packed up shop and headed for the weed capital of the world: California.
‘I spoke to my partner and said, “Hey, I think we belong here. Do you want to move to California?” We agreed that was our plan… we were moving to California to figure out how to do it legally’.
UP IN SMOKE: ‘EVERYTHING BURNED, FORCING ME TO START ALL OVER FOR WHAT FELT LIKE THE TENTH TIME’
When Recalde got to California, he was living out of his car and sleeping at hotels and on camping grounds.
‘The KOA campground in Sonoma County – I tried to get there after they would close and leave before they would reopen. I would take a shower every maybe third day in a hotel room as soon as I’d get enough money to put down a deposit on the room’.
He began taking classes at Oaksterdam University, the world’s first cannabis college, because he wanted to, ‘be taught and learn how to do it [weed] legally’.
Cannabis Distribution Association members pose with California Governor Gavin Newsom (center). Recalde co-founded the organization in 2016 to represent California’s cannabis distributors
Despite his best intentions, Recalde couldn’t make a clean break from the black market because he still needed money. In 2012, he went to Grundy County, Illinois to pick up some money that was owed to him. When he arrived, however, he found out that the person who owed him money didn’t have it. Instead, the guy offered Recalde a few pounds of weed and said that he had contacts in Iowa who would buy it.
‘I hadn’t done that in years,’ recalls Recalde, ‘I just wanted the cash, so I accepted the weed as payment. I figured I could sell it when I got to Iowa’.
The pair jumped in rental car and headed for Iowa, except, they didn’t make it very far. While they were still in Illinois, they got pulled over by a high intensity drug task force.
When Recalde asked the cops why they pulled him over, he says one of the officers told him, ‘Well, you’re a Hispanic male in a rental car with a black male from the south south east side of Chicago. We pull over cars every single day from that neighborhood. That’s a bad neighborhood’.
Recalde maintains the incident was a product of racial profiling and, ‘the best lesson I could have ever had’.
He explains, ‘It was a fluke. I calculated how many times I’ve driven a four-hour drive and been pulled over and thought, How low risk is this? My entire life and survival, my entire existence and freedom has depended on risk calculations. And when I ran the math, to me the risk was relatively low. I had never run the math of being racially profiled’.
Three days after the arrest, Recalde bailed himself out of jail and headed back home. Over the next year, he’d travel back and forth between California and Illinois for multiple court dates.
In 2013, he was issued a ‘410 probation’, also known as a first-time drug offender probation. Under those terms, his case would be dismissed if he could stay out of trouble for two years.
Unfortunately for Recalde, his indoor grow operation in Cloverdale, California got busted three weeks later. He managed to avoid arrest because the property wasn’t listed in his name, but the cops confiscated more than 200 pounds of marijuana and arrested his roommate.
At this point, Recalde packed up what was left of his life and bunkered down on a vineyard in Sonoma County where he was building software until he completed probation in 2015.
The ordeal was a wakeup call for him to get out of the illicit drug game once and for all. Plus, the county announced an amnesty program for preexisting cannabis operators willing to transition into the legal market.
So, Recalde started working with legal growers and eventually made enough money to start a farm of his own.
It was his first successful legal cannabis operation, but it went up in smoke in Tubbs Fire of 2017, which destroyed 36,800 acres of land and over 5,200 structures, including Recalde’s home and cannabis farms.
Recalde seen sifting through debris of his burned down house after the Tubbs fire in Northern California. Nine days later, he started Node Laboratories
‘It burned my house and all of the farms that I had fronted, you know, funded their plantings’.
Recalde bought soil nutrients for over 50 farms in Sonoma County. They were supposed to pay him back come harvest season and provide him with additional product to sell, but that time never came because of the fire.
‘All of my investments went to zero and so did every inch of my life savings. Everything burned, forcing me to start all over for what felt like the tenth time’, says Recalde.
He continues, ‘Cannabis has so many ups and downs, right? It’s hard. You fail and you get everything taken away from you over and over. You have to get back up’.
Which is precisely what the penniless and homeless cannabis entrepreneur did. Nine days after the fire, Recalde started a new company, Node Laboratories.
Node Labs is a tissue culture and cannabis biotech company with proprietary technology that allows them to store, or bank, plant genetics in-vitro.
In other words, they’re taking cannabis cells, putting them in gels in a clean certified lab to keep them pathogen free until they use them at a later date to breed new strains.
Node Laboratories is a biotech agribusiness that was co-founded by Recalde nine days after the 2017 Tubbs Fire destroyed everything he owned. The company combined with Compound Genetics in 2019 to create a hybrid cannabis company that uses high-tech science to design high-grade weed
Plus, they’re collecting data every step of the way. Recalde boasts that he has decades worth of cannabis data dating back to his black market days.
Their genetics technology is useful for any type of seed producer, from chili pepper farmers to cannabis breeders.
And that’s how Recalde first came to start working with his future Compound Genetics business partner, Christopher Lynch.
He and Recalde met in 2018 through mutual contacts and hearing about each other through the weed grapevine.
Lynch started Compound Genetics in 2017, but back then, the company didn’t have any certified infrastructure. He had decades-worth of marijuana seeds and plants stored in garages.
And that’s precisely what Recalde needed – a large library of cannabis genetics because all of his burned down.
Knowing that the partnership would be massively and mutually beneficial, the pair teamed up in 2019 to form a new version of Compound Genetics, one that implemented high-tech science to breed high-grade weed.
Lynch started banking his cannabis seeds with Node Labs so he could create new strains with those seeds, preserve those strains, and collect data on them.
Recalde brought to the table his certified labs, patented plant-genetics technology, California cannabis licenses, and relationships with companies like Cookies, the first billion-dollar weed brand in the US.
COMPOUND GENETICS: WHERE THE STARS GO FOR ‘DESIGNER WEED’
Pavé (left) and Sour Guava (right) strains designed by Compound Genetics
Recalde says that weed is both an art and a science. Compound Genetics, as it exists today, covers both those bases with Recalde bringing the science and Lynch bringing the art.
Lynch’s title is ‘Chief Executive Wizard’. In that role he looks at the structure, flavor, taste, smells, and effects of a plant to decide if it’s right for the market and for what type of consumer. He’ll also take that flower and go back to the library of plants to decide which ones should be crossed with which to create something new.
Compound Genetics sells millions of dollars worth of legal cannabis each year and has secured breeding contracts with well-known rappers, athletes, and companies who are drawn to the brand because of its artistry, science, and combined experience between Recalde and Lynch.
Recalde (right) teamed up with his now business partner, Lynch (left), after the Tubbs Fire burned down Recalde’s life’s work and savings. The dynamic duo combined forces in 2019 to form a hybrid version of Compound Genetics. The newfound company leveraged Lynch’s vault of seeds and breeding experience, Recalde’s certified labs, cannabis licenses, and proprietary technology.
They have the world’s largest library of pathogen-free cannabis that they use to create new and improved strains of hybridized weed.
Recalde’s business model is based on that of Driscoll’s Strawberries. He remembers reading a research paper about how Driscoll’s won the ‘berry wars’. The household brand would find the reddest, juiciest, biggest berries, and use those genes to create an archetype berry. Recalde applied those principles to weed.
Compound Genetics cannabis plants shown at week 3 of their genotype, phenotype, chemotype hunt in 2020
Here’s how it works:
Like humans, plants have chromosomes with potentially hundreds of different genes existing in each one.
A marijuana plant receives 20 chromosomes from its mother and father plants. The females produce flower and the males pollinate. The resulting seeds are grown by breeders, like Compound Genetics, to create phenotypes.
The phenotypes, while having the same parent plants, have different expressions like smell, taste, and potency.
Again, think about it like humans. A mother and father can produce multiple children with varying heights and hair colors. Weed’s the same way.
Compound Genetics uses in-vitro germplasms and seed vaults to bank genetics from existing strains of weed (e.g., ‘Sour Diesel’, ‘Gelato’, ‘Girl Scout Cookies’) and uses those genes to create new strains. They also collect data on each strain to track how it performs under various conditions.
As Recalde puts it, ‘Let’s say we like the color in one strain of weed and we like the smell of another, we make the next generation of that’.
Those next-generation strains are considered designer weed. To Recalde, designer weed, ‘…checks all the boxes. It’s beautiful, it tastes great, it has the desirable effects I’m looking for, and it’s got the aroma that every time you open a jar, you just want to try it’.
To this day, Compound Genetics hasn’t spent a dollar on marketing. Recalde boasts, ‘We haven’t bought a single ad in any publication ever… People talk about weed. When there’s a really good strain, you share it. It can go viral in a way’.
That word-of-mouth effect is also why Compound Genetics is so particular about who they partner with.
‘We’re not desperately taking business from everybody that knocks on the door’, Recalde says.
Rapper Wiz Khalifa rolling (left) and smoking (right) his custom cannabis, ‘Khalifa Kush’
‘It’s all about word of mouth in marijuana. Reputation is everything. So we go ahead and vet every partner that we work with and know mutual contacts that have worked with them in the past. And if everybody says they’re good, then that works for us’.
Compound Genetics has designed strains for Wiz Khalifa, Quavo from Migos, 2 Chainz, Styles P, Young Dolph, Pizza Pusha, and Cookies, just to name a few.
‘Wiz Khalifa is probably the most high-profile client that we’re working with right now. Our company helped source the original Khalifa Kush, and we’re working on creating future strains with him’.
Recalde says he likes working with Khalifa because, ‘Wiz knows weed’.
The rapper is involved in every step of the process and treats it the same way that he treats his music.
Compound Genetics also created a strain with Recalde’s long-time friend, Young Dolph. However, the strain never came out because Dolph died in December 2021. Now, as a tribute to the fallen star, Compound Genetics is releasing a posthumous strain in the rapper’s honor and calling it, ‘Legacy’.
Additionally, the company’s partnered with the billion-dollar weed brand, Cookies, for whom they created several strains, including ‘Apples and Bananas’, which High Times ranked as number-one strain of 2020.
Recalde’s company has an international reputation for designing high-grade hybridized weed
Recalde is an award-winning cannabis geneticist
Compound Genetics’ weed also won first-place hybrid at the 2022 High Times SoCal Cannabis Cup. And Recalde placed on their list of 100 most influential people in cannabis in 2021.
Twenty-three years into the business and Recalde isn’t slowing down. He’s just created a platform, called Dyme, that gives cannabis growers the ability to register their strains on the blockchain and receive titles on their weed’s DNA.
His goal is to create a royalty distribution network for cannabis genetics while preventing counterfeits from entering the market, a common occurrence when it comes to designer weed.
Like designer handbags, designer weed is top-of-the-line, exclusive, and in high-demand. The price is derived from the exclusivity of the strain. Counterfeiters duplicate Recalde’s products without the use of certified labs and quality control standards. Then they sell the knockoff goods at lower prices using virtually the same or nearly identical packaging.
In response, Recalde’s implemented counterfeiting protections because, ‘This has been such a serious challenge’.
He elaborates, ‘It’s very hard for me to tell today if I pick up a bag and look at whether it’s counterfeit or not. They have copied every aspect of our bags, including the testing results, the holograms, and even the license numbers on the packaging’.
Not only does this hurt Recalde’s business, it hurts consumers because they are unknowingly buying unregulated marijuana that’s of lesser quality than the original and potentially dangerous.
Unlike the alcohol, tobacco, and luxury retail industries, Recalde says that there are no avenues for legal recourse against cannabis counterfeiters.
So beyond creating anti-counterfeit measures like marijuana NFTs, the industry veteran of both black and legal markets is working with lawmakers and lobbyists in Washington to develop federal cannabis legislation.
As for what’s next, Recalde sees himself getting more into the plant-based foods market, but he won’t be giving up the ganja game anytime soon.
‘I’ve dedicated my entire life to cannabis, and I don’t see myself moving on until I feel like we won’.