Colombia’s medical marijuana industry: a way to end the stigma surrounding drugs?

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Colombia, a country that has suffered greatly under the stigma of the illegal drug trade, has an opportunity to reinvent itself with the cultivation of a plant that for decades has been controlled by illegal groups: marijuana.

A 2016 law regulating the use of cannabis for scientific and medicinal purposes has been decisive in this regard. The law, which came into effect last year, allows for the legal cultivation of up to 40.5 tonnes, 44 per cent of the limit allowed by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).

There are already around 70 companies in the country with licenses issued by the Colombian Ministry of Health and Justice to legally cultivate marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, the authorities acknowledged in 2018 that there were still 234 hectares of illicit marijuana crops in the country, which generate more than 900 tons of illegal cannabis with more than four harvests every year.

Cannabis as a symbol of peace

After abandoning her small business in Colombia’s Caribbean region when she received threats of extortion from organised crime syndicates, 34-year-old Neira Patricia Santiago Medina, Pati to her friends, never imagined that marijuana could provide her with dignified work and a future for her family. “I always associated it with the boys who smoke it to get high. How could I have known that it could be good for my health?” she says.

In late 2018, Pati began working at Clever Leaves, a medical marijuana company founded in Bogotá two years earlier by two entrepreneurs and an expert in public drug policy.

“Colombia is the ideal place to grow cannabis because it meets all of the requirements: suitable geography and climate with abundant rainwater and sunlight as well as rigorous legislation that respects international guidelines,” says Clever Leaves CEO Andrés Fajardo, who sees this as an opportunity for his country. “We can now change our negative image by using one of the very things that has done us so much harm.”

Like the coca leaf and the opium poppy, the cannabis plant in Colombia has historically carried the stigma of violence associated with drug trafficking. Today, it is starting to become a symbol of hope for a more peaceful future. “Marijuana has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years,” says former health minister Alejandro Gaviria, one of the architects of the change in the law.

“People in my country are still sceptical, my neighbours make fun of me because they think I work with a bunch of stoners. But I’m proud to contribute to something that can heal the sick,” says Pati. In fact, Pati works in a multi-million dollar industry that in 2018 generated US$12.2 billion (about €10.9 billion) internationally and which, according to the reference book The State of Legal Marijuana Markets, is projected to grow by 38 per cent this year.

At first glance, the sprawling cannabis farm where Pati works brings to mind a scene from the television series Narcos: Mexico in which one of the country’s first cartels decides to plant marijuana on a large scale in the middle of the desert. But unlike the farms depicted in the Netflix series, these greenhouses located in Boyacá, about a three-hour drive from the capital of Bogotá, are anything but illegal.

“We have the largest facilities in the world for the cultivation and extraction of THC and CBD, the two most abundant cannabinoids,” explains Clever Leaves, which hopes to have 22 cultivated hectares by the end of this year. Its location in the small village of Pesca, a quiet area in the Colombian Andes, is no accident: an army battalion is located three kilometres away and the area has one of the lowest homicide rates in the country.

“We’re not worried about security. We contact the police every week and we have 200 cameras, electric fences, infrared beams and private protection. We also have a rigorous process in place for tracking all of our products, from seed to sale,” explains Julián Wilches, who before joining the company worked for a decade for the Colombian government as a drug policy expert with an approach he defines as “supportive of small-scale growers.”

Founded by Colombians and funded by a foreign investment fund with shareholders in Canada, the United States and Europe, Clever Leaves has a social responsibility programme aimed at benefitting the community.

Like Pati, who has two sons ages eight and 14, 70 per cent of the company’s growers are Colombian women who are the primary breadwinners of their households. Clever Leaves also employs professionals in organic chemistry, genetics, pharmaceutical product development and medicine.

María Corujo is one of them. Originally from Spain, the 33-year-old came to Colombia in 2017. “The industry was just beginning to take off. I’m a biologist and a doctor in biotechnology and I was intrigued by the idea of getting involved in the industry from its very beginnings, and in one of the countries that is leading the way.” She now heads a team of agronomists researching plant genetics who are applying knowledge acquired over decades of experience in Colombia’s world-class flower industry.

Joining the race

Just a few months ago, in October 2018, Canada became the first G7 country to legalise marijuana for recreational purposes, a decision which has enormous implications for Latin America, especially for producer countries like Colombia and Mexico. In coming out in support of full legalisation, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed in the footsteps of Uruguay’s former president Pepe Mujica, who signed legislation to legalise recreational cannabis in 2013.

The United Kingdom and Germany have legalised the use of cannabis for medical purposes, as have 34 states in the United States, where the marijuana industry continues to expand at a rapid pace: Michigan recently became the tenth state to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes.

The list also continues to grow in Latin America and the Caribbean (though presently only for medical purposes), where Colombia has been joined by Chile, Brazil, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has declared himself open to new strategies in the fight against drugs.

Clever Leaves achieved a milestone earlier this year by obtaining the first license in Colombia for the export of cannabis to Canada. This currently only covers research purposes but, as those in the industry hope, represents an essential first step towards things to come. And it’s not the only company operating in Colombia. Backed by Canadian capital, the company PharmaCielo has already obtained a license to export cannabis oils, one of many products derived from the plant, which also include creams, resins, tablets and essences.

The first Colombian company to go public was Khiron Life Sciences Corp, which in March 2019 was valued at US$300 million. “We are in a race to see who comes out on top,” says a representative of the company.

Medical and social benefits

During the 2018 presentation of Khiron in Bogotá, one of the attendees gave a surprise testimony. Carlos Ciro, captain in the same Colombian army that for years fought the crime syndicates who control the cultivation of marijuana, expressed his joy at the discovery of the medicinal use of cannabis. “My daughter has epilepsy and this is the only thing that relieves her pain. God bless this miraculous plant,” he said in tears.

Although the effects of medical marijuana are still being researched, medical science has already proven the benefits of cannabis in the alternative treatment of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, nausea caused by chemotherapy, chronic pain, arthritis, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

“This new awareness of the medical benefits means that our products can benefit around 10 to 15 per cent of the population of Latin America, which is around 600 million people,” says Andrés Galofre, one of the founders of Khiron and head of business development for the company, which has made US$60 million (around €53.5 million) in just two years.

Everyone involved in this new industry is convinced that their work has a positive impact on society, that it provides communities with dignified employment and generates major investments in health, innovation and technology.

The farmers and indigenous peoples of rural Colombia who have traditionally cultivated marijuana (considered sacred in some cultures) have benefitted from these changing attitudes. They are no longer seen as the collaborators of drug traffickers and guerrillas but are instead recognised as a source of work and development. Since 2017, the government has been granting licenses to community cooperatives for regulated cultivation.

However, Colombia’s new president Iván Duque has supported policies in line with the United States’ war on drugs. During his 2018 campaign, Duque attacked his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos for allowing Colombia to once again become the world’s largest coca producer.

His plan targets not only crime syndicates but also consumers. Although the possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana for personal use has been legal since 1986, the conservative leader signed a decree in October 2018 that permits, among other things, the seizure of any amount of cannabis in a public space. “This approach is wrongheaded,” writes Colombian journalist Jorge Eduardo Espinosa in an opinion piece on the subject in the New York Times.

“Any president will agree to support the progress that the medical cannabis industry brings to the nation. We are not afraid of changes in government,” says a source from Khiron, whose partners include former Mexican president Vicente Fox and consultant Matt Murphy, who worked for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) during the worst years of drug trafficking in Colombia and now supports regulation. “It’s an unstoppable industry. If it’s not us then other countries will benefit.”

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