From Underground To Above Ground For Colombian Marijuana Farmers

By Philip Rebentisch, Chief Storyteller at Gotta Story.

Many business strategy books cite a common refrain: Following a crisis, there is opportunity. This is certainly true in South America and Colombia in particular.

For decades, Colombian farmers were caught in a triangle of violence between the Colombian government, narco-traffickers, and anti-government paramilitary organizations. For the farmers, coca leaves and marijuana plants were the preferred cash crop as they paid well despite the risks. Many farmers had no choice in the matter. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the primary anti-government rebel group, paid farmers for the illicit crops which FARC then sold to finance their operations. At the same time, FARC disrupted infrastructure development within the prime agricultural areas it controlled. Thankfully, for the good of all concerned, those days have passed.

In December 2015, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ signed his medical marijuana decree into law legalizing large-scale medical marijuana production. In November 2016, the Colombian government reached a long-awaited peace deal with FARC, and with peace at hand, both FARC and the government agreed to replace illicit farms with legal crops. This included bananas, coffee, hearts of palm, tomatoes, vanilla, and cocoa for chocolate. Medical marijuana is also part of this effort, albeit with a sense of irony given the country’s history with illegal drug trafficking and the failed war on drugs.

Colombia is perfectly positioned for commercial agriculture. It is temperate and receives abundant annual rainfall. The country’s southwestern province of Cauca reportedly grows 50 percent of Colombia’s medical marijuana. But there’s a catch. Farmers who want to participate in the new medical marijuana program must first destroy their illegal, legacy marijuana crops.

Small family farms are limited to a half-hectare plot if they want to grow legitimate medical marijuana. They must also have a relationship with a licensed Colombian medical marijuana company or they must purchase expensive laboratory equipment to verify they are growing authorized marijuana. It is important to note that medical marijuana can only be cultivated for products to be sold for research or for oils and creams, and not consumer sales of the raw flower, which is part of the cannabis plant normally used for smoking. “The coming year will be a period of consolidation for Colombian cannabis companies,” says Rodrigo Gomez, president of the Cannabis Industry Association. "Growers and refiners will begin testing products and honing in on a marketable portfolio. Investment is coming to Colombia because of the quality of the terrain."

Strict Cannabis Regulations

Colombia maintains rigid laws on illegal marijuana production and attention to the law is crucial. To that end, the Colombian government established four types of licenses along with technical documentation requirements. Clever Leaves is a perfect example of a leading vertically-integrated, licensed Colombian producer of pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis. It is the first Colombian company authorized to export cannabis into Canada and sent its first shipment in February 2019.

Kyle Detwiler, CEO of Northern Swan Holdings, Inc., the company that helped secure Clever Leaves' import permit with Health Canada, has a persuasive perspective. “Colombia has the unique potential to become a global leader in the cannabis value chain, creating a sustainable plank of economic development for the country. As the demand for medical cannabis increases, Clever Leaves has the advantage to position itself as the leading exporter for pharmaceutical-grade cannabis.”

Why This Matters

Literally from the ground up, Colombia has worked diligently in recent years to become one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive medical marijuana markets in Latin America. With a clear regulatory framework and the potential for large-scale, low-cost production, Colombia could become one of the largest global export leaders of medical marijuana. It’s a plant that holds the possibility of improving the lives of millions of people, and it all begins with a farmer.

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