By / September 14, 2022

Colombian Medical Cannabis Has a Future, Albeit a Conditional One

The Colombian legalization of cannabis generated an explosion of companies, cooperatives, associations, and individual producers who saw a great business opportunity, but the chosen ones will be few.

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Colombian Market to Be Dominated by 10-20 Large Players

“This will be a market for ten or twenty, and it will only have a return for those ten. But surely not at the levels that have been thought,” said Efraín López Amaris, director of the law firm Árpez Company, which advises governments and the private sector on the cannabis issue. “The failure of the cannabis industry comes from the large scales and has had repercussions on the small ones, and not only in Colombia (…) Investors were dedicated to selling expectations (…) Now the industry is oversupplied, and the value of cannabis is very low,” explains López. 

“There is not a single company in Colombia that is not in the red,” says Diana Valenzuela, legal director of Anandamida Gardens and member of the board of directors of the Colombian Association of Cannabis Industries – Asocolcanna.

Structural Problems Define Colombian Medical Cannabis Market

For Valenzuela, a structural problem of the sector is an insufficient number of buyers. For her, the solution lies in the regularization of adult use. Starting with the legalization of medicinal use was strategic because it allowed “to open minds, or open the way, in a world with a lot of stigmas,” but it is necessary to go one step further. This idea found an ally in Petro’s administration, who, from his first week as president, proposed to legalize cannabis, even without a license, for domestic consumption and export.

In the meeting with the outgoing Government, Petro’s Historic Pact team pointed out that in the drug sector is a dispersion of competences among entities, that there is little budget, and that there was a “systematic blockade by the outgoing government, which only gives us missionary speeches without figures.”

He also mentioned the need to investigate possible contract corruption and stop actions that generate stigmatization against producers and consumers. The Government proposes to centralize drug policy in the Presidency of the Republic to develop a comprehensive public policy based on a human rights and peace approach, with the participation of the populations historically affected by prohibition.

Two Bills Before Congress

There are two bills in the Colombian Congress, by congressmen Gustavo Bolívar and Alejandro Ocampo (both from the Historical Pact), and two other constitutional reform proposals by liberal representatives Juan Carlos Lozada and Carlos Ardila. All of them are aimed at the approval of the adult use of cannabis. The Constitution needs to be changed because an amendment to its article 49, made in 2009 and promoted by then president Alvaro Uribe, prohibits the carrying and consumption of narcotic or psychotropic substances unless prescribed by a doctor.

The most complete project is that of Bolivar, which proposes legalization for over-18s. It emphasizes the inclusion of small and medium producers, especially those in regions affected by illicit crops and armed conflict, with specific measures to facilitate their access to licenses, such as making them free of charge, as well as the recognition of seeds from indigenous communities, peasants and racial minorities. Concerning consumption, it contemplates the guarantee for self-cultivation, the creation of public or private dispensaries, electronic commerce, and the creation of clubs or associations.

Bolivar also addresses the elimination of criminal records for persons convicted of cannabis-related crimes when those responsible are “in a situation of poverty, extreme vulnerability due to their condition of exclusion, disability, coercion by a third party.” This reinforces the freedom they could ask for, alleging the principle of criminal favorability. In the Cauca municipality of Toribio alone, traditional authorities report knowing of some 300 young people deprived of liberty for cannabis-related offenses.

All Producers Say Colombian Government Must Take Decisive Action

In addition to legislative reform, the large small, and medium-sized producers who took part in the consultation agree that the promise will only take off if the Colombian Government also takes decisive measures. These measures could include supporting small and medium-sized cannabis producers with technical support.

“I have not seen very often that the State relinquishes its responsibility in such a direct way,” says Julian Wilches, co-founder and director of corporate and regulatory affairs of Clever Leaves, one of the primary producers of medical cannabis in the country.

Specifically, with small and medium-sized producers, López states that only the Colombian state will be able to get them off the ground, and “with a lot of money involved.” Valenzuela believes that the state should also invest in research, especially in the medical field, which is practically non-existent in the country. The Ministry of Science has only supported one initiative to promote the technology transfer needed to produce cannabis and its derivatives in Colombia, called “Evaluation of nanostructured formulations of Cannabis extracts encapsulated in polymeric micelles for the treatment of chronic pain.”

Óscar Ospina Quintero, Popayán’s health secretary, is trying to promote an association of medical specialists who prescribe cannabis. For him, it is necessary to train them in the knowledge of the plant’s medical uses and even to bring those who have advanced the most in other countries. Today there are only two approved cannabis-based medicines in Colombia, Epidiolex and Sativex, so patients’ access has been through magistral formulas prepared by an apothecary based on a personalized medical prescription according to the patient’s specific needs, as Valenzuela points out. In addition, the fact that cannabis continues to be listed as a psychoactive substance for controlled use generates suspicion on the part of many health professionals.

The sector is also asking for a solution to transition those who already grow cannabis in Colombia to legal production. In ASOICANN, Opocué explains that they could not obtain a cultivation license. He says that the Ministry of Justice delayed for a year the initial technical visit that should have been done in less than two months; when they did it, the infrastructure had been damaged, and they did not have the resources to rebuild it. In addition, cannabis is not included in the National Program for the Substitution of Crops for Illicit Use.

Opocué says that the more than 7,000 cannabis-growing families in Toribío are preparing for the legalization of cannabis for adult use. He says they hope priority will be given to the north of the Cauca “with infrastructure, with licenses, with commercialization.” They also propose that the indigenous peoples’ Government should be able to issue licenses.

Reform Needed to Aid War-Affected Regions

The need for legal production to improve the Colombian regions affected by the war on drugs is also on the table. The think tank Dejusticia published a study on August 4 that proposes that fiscal policy should establish taxes on the production, commercialization, and consumption of cannabis in a legalized market. Taking the existing model in the United States, they propose that the resources obtained in this way be destined for reparation programs in the affected territories.

A final issue requested by those consulted is the creation of spaces of articulation to elaborate a public policy that strengthens the sector. “This is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture’s productive chains department, and for the last two or more years, they have been trying to consolidate the productive chain,” says Efraín López. He adds that the chain is important because it would be the vehicle for dialogue between the Colombian Government and the industry. Unfortunately, it has not yet been formed, although there are regional advances, especially in Cundinamarca, Antioquia and Cauca; for López it will be consolidated when the sector is somewhat refined.

Ospina has been advancing from the Popayán Health Secretariat in creating a cannabis table in the municipality. They are working on a decree that gives it legal backing so that “it can have an impact on medicinal and recreational uses, making citizen pacts and proposing debates, for example, on who can use a park. This must be done by working with the Colombian people. He hopes the mayor will sign the decree before October of this year.

Without legal reforms to decriminalize adult consumption and regulate the market, cannabis will continue to feed the illegal economy, leaving the expectations of Colombian peasants and indigenous people to find a future in cannabis nothing but a distant dream.

(Featured image by Алексей Вечерин via Pexels)

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