Colombia sees billion-dollar bonanza from legacy of marijuana trade

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Tired of living in fear of arrest or running afoul of drug traffickers, Romairo Aguirre is ready to destroy his illegal plantation of 1,500 marijuana bushes in the mountainous Cauca region of southwest Colombia and become legitimate.

Like many of the farmers who grow cannabis near the town of Corinto, Aguirre hopes President Juan Manuel Santos’ plan to turn Colombia into a major producer of medical marijuana means he can find work from one of a dozen companies launching in the South American nation.

Santos - who leaves office in August - passed a law two years ago legalizing medical cannabis for domestic use and export. It aims to take the marijuana trade from the hands of Marxist rebels and traffickers, transforming Colombia into a multibillion-dollar producer for the pharmaceutical industry.

“We’re just realizing marijuana’s potential. It could be the next economic bonanza - like coffee was,” said Aguirre, 61, before a man and a woman arrived at his farm to buy sacks of dried cannabis buds.

“I could go to jail for this but that won’t happen if I’m working in medicinal.”

Farmers who want to be part of Colombia’s medical marijuana project are required to destroy their illegal crops.

Colombia has already issued 33 licenses and hopes to grow as much as 40.5 tons a year of medical marijuana - accounting for roughly 44 percent of licenses issued globally.

So far, however, the government has authorized production of seeds and marijuana only for scientific research, not for commercial production of medical cannabis.

Andres Lopez, head of Colombia’s National Narcotics Fund that oversees use of legal narcotics, said it was putting in place its team to regulate the industry. The new law calls for rigorous testing to prevent illegal cannabis from entering the medical market.

In time, growers estimate that the Andean nation could capture as much as one-fifth of a global market that could be worth $40 billion a year - a significant economic boost as Colombia seeks to diminish its reliance on dwindling oil reserves.

That would be more than coal exports, and also more than exports of flowers, coffee and bananas combined.

“Colombia’s betting on diversification of exports, of its portfolio and this is one of the most aggressive ways,” said Rodrigo Arcila, head of the cannabis growers association.

The new industry will not produce smokable marijuana but focus on oils, creams and inhalers produced in laboratories and personalized by prescription to each patient, he said.

Growers say that production would be enough to treat pain and symptoms of some 4.5 million patients nationally and 60 million in Latin America suffering from conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

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