Colombia aiming for a high with medicinal cannabis

By Bertie Previte April 4, 2018
Medicinal cannabis

Medcann believe Colombia has the potential to lead the world in medicinal cannabis . Photo: Medcann

With a global increase in the use of medicinal marijuana, Colombia could become a top producer, given the country’s ideal geographic and climatic conditions for growing the plant.

Those with a semblance of interest in the bonanza marimbera of the 1970s in Colombia might be acquainted with the tale of Allen Long, a man of extraordinary talent and flair who, in a decade-long career, smuggled well over 900,000 pounds of cannabis from Colombia to the USA in a series of clandestine aerial voyages. Long’s career ended when the more aggressive, ruthless cocaine trade began to eclipse that of what was then known as ‘Colombian gold’.

Since then, cannabis has come a long way in a country that has treated illegal narcotics with understandable contempt. Yet few in Colombia would have believed it had they been told that the drug, which caused the illegal economic boom of the 1960s and planted the seeds for the country’s narcotic reputation, might become the source of a sizeable chunk of Colombia’s ‘legal’ economy in the future.

This is the reality now facing the country. A crucial distinction must be made first, however, which is that its production purpose is purely medicinal, aimed at those who suffer from muscular or neurological ailments, among others. Moreover, it is big business and it is legal – a long way from the product crammed into the crevasses of the diminutive planes of smugglers such as Long.

Dramatic changes

“In the past five years the scene has changed dramatically,” says Felipe Harker, executive director of Medcann, one of the companies awarded a licence to produce and distribute medicinal cannabis. This licensing is the culmination of a process that began in the 1980s, and appears to have come at an ideal moment. More than 20 countries worldwide now regulate cannabis in some fashion, and according to Harker, the medicinal cannabis industry in Colombia has the potential to reach USD$55.8 billion in the world market by 2025. “It is a reality, not an activist campaign,” he states firmly.

There are several reasons that the Medcann team believe Colombia could become one of the top producing nations globally. One is its highly organised and clear legal framework, which is one among very few in the world that regulates the entire production chain from the seed to its distribution to the end patient.

Optimum conditions

In addition, Colombia’s geographical position on the equator offers the optimum cycle of 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness required as the plant begins to flower. As a result, cultivators do not need grow houses to achieve the necessary light stability annually, thereby using less electricity and significantly reducing both environmental impact and production costs. It is about three to four times cheaper to produce cannabis here than in Canada or the USA.

Another factor is experience: the combination of perfect weather and soil conditions has led to a highly developed agro-industry. Colombia’s strong position in the global flower market, exporting more than a billion-dollars’ worth annually, means it has the horticultural expertise for high-quality and efficient cannabis production.

Juan Manuel Restrepo, rector of Universidad del Rosario, says the country must make the most of these opportune circumstances. “It is not every day that you have a product, with a growing market, and ideal conditions in which to cultivate it. It must be taken advantage of.”

This potential – along with the prospect of peace that has encouraged international investment in various sectors of the economy – has sparked interest from several foreign companies. Two Canadian companies, PharmaCielo and Khiron Colombia have already been granted licences. The amount of outside investment already present in an industry still in its infancy is promising, although there are concerns that these big businesses may try to exploit vulnerable rural communities.

Protecting local farmers

As has been widely reported, one of the challenges of the peace process is to both protect and provide land and employment for the rural population who have suffered most in the conflict, often caught between armed groups, industry and guerrilla fighters. By their very nature, companies are not motivated by altruism or medicinal benefits, rather by flashing dollar signs, which leads to suspicions from local workers – some of whom are already cultivating cannabis illegally – that the presence of these new firms will have adverse consequences on their livelihood.

Colombian Gold: Cannabis Valhalla, a documentary from 2017 by Cannabis News Network, looked at this issue in Toribío – a town hard hit by the conflict – in the largely indigenous Cauca region. The area, with ideal conditions for growth, produces copious amounts of cannabis. After the medicinal aspects of the drug emerged, local farmers capitalised on the new crop, causing somewhat of a microcosmic economic boom. Yet with this boom also came the risk of big companies taking over and squeezing the region dry.

Ricardo Vargas, director of Acción Andina Colombia, voiced his concerns about the ramifications it could have on rural communities like those in Cauca. As he says in the documentary, “The big challenge is if there are no options for the communities to enter the legal economy, it will be very difficult for everyone who benefits from the illegality to disappear, such as armed groups, criminal gangs, and paramilitary groups that historically have thrived on these resources.”

To counter this threat, Caucannabis, the biggest cooperative comprised of regional farmers in the Cauca territory, was founded. At the end of last year, Caucannabis received its licence to cultivate psychoactive cannabis in alliance with the aforementioned PharmaCielo. Federico Cock-Correa, CEO of PharmaCielo Colombia Holdings, spoke of his pride at working with the communities of Cauca, highlighting the significance of the indigenous community having their “rightful seat at the cannabis-industry table”. With cannabis offering a much-needed potential income stream for farmers, it will be important that more of these types of alliances are built in order to ensure that local interests are protected in this profitable new market.

It is axiomatic that the swift rise of the cannabis industry is not a fleeting anomaly, and Colombia, with the acquiescent legal framework and ideal conditions for growth, would benefit enormously from cashing in on an already lucrative business. And whatever one’s views on the legalisation of drugs, this certainly marks another refreshing step away from the illogical, self-evidently contradictory and archaic campaign of the “war on drugs”.

Related: Santos says war on drugs not working

While there are inevitable concerns about the process, the overwhelming sense is one of optimism. If it is done right, Colombia is not only uniquely placed to capitalise on the growing progressiveness towards cannabis, but also able to produce a medicinal drug that can bring relief to sufferers of serious conditions and illnesses.