Colombia gave a major push to rebooting its marijuana industry this week by awarding its first license for medical marijuana production to a Canadian company with big plans.
The move marks a changing shift in attitudes towards cannabis in a country that has long been at the center of the U.S.-led war on drugs, and has spent billions of dollars trying to enforce crop eradication and prohibition.
While cocaine is still strictly forbidden, Colombia's congress voted to legalize medical marijuana in May. Now the South American country is turning to the multi-billion dollar medical marijuana industry in an effort to create jobs in rural areas.
On Tuesday Colombian Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria said that seven companies have applied for permits to manufacture medical marijuana products in Colombia. And that's just the beginning.
“There is no limit on the number of licenses we plan to hand out,” Gaviria said in a press conference. “Any firm that meets our requirements will get a license.”
The first company to get a manufacturing license was Pharmacielo, a Canadian firm that plans to set up production facilities outside Medellin, the city once tormented by Pablo Escobar and his army of cartel hitmen.
On its website, Pharmacielo says it wants to produce marijuana oil extracts to export to markets that already accept medical marijuana products, including the United States. Pharmacielo argues that Colombia is one of the “best places in the world” for medical marijuana production because of its climate, skilled labor force, and relatively low labor costs. The country's experience cultivating and exporting cut flowers is expected to translate into a competitive advantage for the upstart medical marijuana industry.
“Colombia will play a significant role in this developing international industry,” Pharmacielo's Colombia manager Federico Cock-Correa said in a statement after the company received its manufacturing license on Tuesday.
With its manufacturing license awarded, Pharmacielo will now be able to apply for a license to legally grow marijuana plants in Colombia.
“This approval brings us closer to our goal,” the company said in a statement.
Colombia has a bitter sweet relationship with marijuana, which is currently the most consumed illicit drug in the country. One recent survey suggests that 11% of the population has tried it at least once.
The plant was first introduced to Colombia in the 1950s. A decade later, local strains of weed were “discovered” by Peace Corps volunteers who were dazzled by its quality and took it back to the U.S. in small quantities. By the 1970s drug barons in northern Colombia were smuggling an estimated 500,00 pounds of marijuana to the U.S. each week by boat and plane. With the State Department's help, the government cracked down hard on drug exports, and as weed production picked up in the U.S. Colombia's marijuana production slumped and drug kingpins turned towards cocaine. Nowadays, marijuana production in Colombia is mostly for the domestic market.
The Colombian government which has been calling for new approaches to the drug problem, rarely penalizes the consumption of marijuana these days, and a Supreme Court sentence even allows users to carry a personal dose of 20 grams.
But producing and selling marijuana for recreational purposes is still illegal here.
Despite these limitations, medical marijuana entrepreneurs are hoping their Colombia gambit will pay off.
"This land of sunshine and soil can do more than grow flowers” Pharmacielo said in a promotional video. "We're planning to turn what has caused so much trouble into a seed for change.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.