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Colombia Cannabis

Paradise Found: How Colombia’s Growing Medical Cannabis Business Is Shifting the Nation’s Identity

Colombia legalized medicinal cannabis in 2016 with promising legislation. It experiences lower operational costs than other countries considering its agrarian knowledge, and has 12 hours of sunlight in all seasons. It is the second largest  exporter of flowers only to the Netherlands. All these factors contribute to the country’s goal of becoming a major player in the medicinal cannabis industry in Latin America, and globally.

Large International Investments in New Industry Creates Jobs

“There are investors coming from different parts of the world,” explains Rodrigo Arcila Gómez, executive president of the Industrial Cannabis Colombian Association (Asociación Colombiana de Industrias de Cannabis, ASOCOLCANNA), in a Google Meet interview when asked how medicinal cannabis has been helping the country’s economy. 

According to Arcila the main foreign investors in the local cannabis industry are from, in order: “Canada, the U.S. and European countries, all always accompanied by Colombian investors.” Players are bringing in amounts of up to USD$600 million.

ASOCOLCANNA studies point out that the medicinal cannabis business generates 17.3 jobs per hectare, which according to the institution’s estimates could lead to 7,500 jobs in 2025, and 27,000 in 2030. “Formal jobs are very important as they generate 0.5 indirect working positions, hence, these direct and indirect spots created by the business will be very important,” affirms the business man.

Dr. Sandra Carillo: Leading Medical Cannabis Education in Colombia

One of the leading engines behind medicinal cannabis legalization and acceptance in Colombia is Dr. Sandra Carrillo, MD., President of the Colombian Medicinal Cannabis Association (Asociación Médica Colombiana de Cannabis Medicinal, ASOMEDCAAM) who also sees the dawning of a bright future for medical cannabis in the South American country.

“Currently the medicinal cannabis industry in Colombia is positioned as a world leader because of many factors, including its geographic position, the richness of our soil, our genetic varied native plants, qualified labor force, and lower costs to operate, as well as the history of our country in agriculture and the quantity of physicians and scientists interested in researching and applying cannabinoid therapies,” explains Dr. Carrillo through our Skype session.

The medical cannabis expert also points out that it has a leg up over other Latin American countries with its “magistral formulas and preparations,” which are tailor-made and prepared by pharmacists. These formulas are regulated and evaluated by the Health Ministry and the National Vigilance Institute for Medicine and Food (Instituto Nacional de Vigilancia de Medicamentos y Alimentos, INVIMA), “that enable our patients to have safe and regulated access to them.”

Colombia cannabis
Manolo Rivera of the Colombia Cannabis Group inspects a cannabis plant. Photo by Melaniev5.

Still, scenes of recent past linger in the mind of Dr. Carrillo, and the pitch of her voice changes subtly when recalling that era: “Before the regularization of medicinal cannabis, the patients had to buy products on the streets and those were unsafe and unregulated. There was a large black market where patients had to buy products not up to the quality and security standards, or evaluated by the Health Ministry.”

The streets harken to darker times in Colombian history, which had its boiling point during the drug wars spearheaded by the Medellín and Cáli cartels that found their way into America in the 1970s and were major players in the Cocaine Cowboys years. Yet, the violence and oppression in Colombia didn’t start with the drug business or the nation’s agricultural expertise.

Colombia As A Democratic Model: Elites Favoured

I point out to Colombian historian Lina Britto, Ph.D. that before the drug war years, Colombia was positioned by mainstream media as a model for democratic institutions and economic modernization, and ask how marijuana- and later cocaine-fuelled drug business affected their society.

“Well…,” she takes a breath in our Skype conversation, “I think in a way it changed, but at the same time it built upon whatever already existed.” Britto is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and author of Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise.

“We need to question that idea of Colombia as a model of democracy and as a model of modernization because we need to question for whom exactly these models of representative democracy and economic modernization were working for.”

The Role of the United States

For the scholar the current cannabis cultivation scenario can be traced back to the agricultural knowledge of previous commodities, and also to American interests in Colombia.

The country survived a civil war known as “La Violencia” (The Violence) from 1948 to 1958. Afterwards, the Colombian Military Junta took over after what was left, and a year later it opened for democratic elections.

Colombia was perceived as an economic and democratic model but mainly for the elite, as per Britto, which was aligned with American interests during the Cold War as the U.S. was trying to avoid other countries following the examples of Cuba and ‘turning red.’ 

America supported many right-leaning governments and far-right military dictatorships in the so-called South-Cone, in particular through the insidious Operation Condor. Many people were left out of the Colombian “model nation,” and the country is still very unequal. Among them were those working in the marijuana fields.

Colombia’s Magdalena River is pictured near Gigante, Colombia. This region is crucial to the country’s agricultural industry. Photo by Bernard Gagnon.

But before marijuana became “the very first regional economy of illegal drugs in the country,” Britto walks me through a journey of the past to understand this scenario, which dates back to the early 20th century on the Colombian coast, a region known at the time as the Greater Magdalena. It became known as the epicentre of the marijuana economy in Colombia.

The area is perceived as an important laboratory of experimentation for different approaches of agrarian development. It was controlled by the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Brands International, formed in 1899 by American entrepreneurs that exported bananas to the U.S. and Europe. 

The fields were rocked in 1928 with the episode known as The Banana Massacre, when Colombian law enforcement associated with the United Fruit Company quelled workers who were protesting, demanding better labour conditions and a more open market for their products.

The area was later used for cotton and rice and was the Colombian stage for the Green Revolution, commonly known as the Third Agricultural Revolution, which happened in the 1950s and 1960s when the world saw increased agricultural production with the emergence of new technologies and specialized work forces. It also affected the cannabis world.

Nowadays Arcila attests that the legal cannabis fields are generating jobs in a way that brings citizenship to those in the lower spheres of society, as they are able to access health and pensions through formal roles. It also generates opportunities for women, who in many cases are the heads of the table in their households. For Colombians, it is one positive effect that has come out of walking this painful and violent path.

Shedding Stigma and the Role of Education

The trio of interviewees agree that the drug wars have left a stigma that make it difficult to debate the benefits of medicinal cannabis, let alone legalize it—which makes it a huge step forward for the nation.

Dr. Carrillo shares that one of the main tools for this turning point is education. For her, it was necessary to educate everyone from the ordinary populace to doctors, scientists and the political class, in order to make people understand that the legalization of medicinal cannabis was done strictly for medical and scientific purposes. 

“It was about supporting the legalization of a plant with acknowledged medical and therapeutic properties as an alternative treatment for different pathologies, that would bring a better life quality to patients with specific pathologies. The main obstacles were the stigma and the lack of knowledge about the therapeutic capacities of the plant.”

Amid the opposers were members of the health workers community. Through ASOMEDCCAM, Dr. Carrillo and her colleagues composed of psychiatrists, neurologists, cardiologists and other specialists promote academic gatherings with renowned standards. 

“Although medicinal cannabis was legalized five years ago in Colombia it still has stigma in medicinal and scientific communities,” relays Dr. Carrillo. 

Nevertheless, she sees “Colombia as a leader in Latin-America regarding education for doctors and health professionals after many Colombian universities started grad programs and certifications focusing on training for prescribing cannabinoid therapies.”

For Arcila the image of the drug business in Colombia was “without doubts” a thorn in the side of the passing of laws. “It was demanded we make all our community—(among them) military forces, scientific society and members of government—attend (medicinal) cannabis events to understand” the improvements it would bring as a whole. “It was an arduous task.”

Britto posits that, “at the same time, we see in pop culture a lot of productions that exploit Colombia’s drug history and Colombia’s history of violence, our internal conflict, to produce all kinds of fictional and entertainment products, movies and telenovelas and all kinds of pop culture products that have Colombia as source of inspiration. So, that is another image of the country that is going on and that is circulating in the world for mass consumption.”

The scholar also believes that contradictory and parallel images of Colombia are circulating globally, ignoring what the country is currently facing: Covid-19, and mass protests opposing its health and tributary sector reforms. 

A meeting that is ingrained in Arcila’s memories was with an Indigenous leader, in which they illustrated how Indigenous peoples have always used the herb for medicine, while other Colombians grew it for nefarious profits. 

The country is struggling with many issues, including its identity. Medicinal cannabis seems to be not only a relief to patients but a way for a better tomorrow, from its medicinal aspects through the sociological, economic and political efforts that hopefully benefit those needing it most.

More Stories by Gabriel Leão:

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