Why you should care
Because this is a country where the drug trade usually leads to violence. But this time, things could play out differently.
Back when Juan Pablo Guzman started his cannabis cultivation business nearly two decades ago, the Colombian says he had to get permission from the country’s FARC rebels, the military and the police to bring his crops down from a small, 2-hectare plot up in the subtropical forests in the department of Cauca. But Guzman doesn’t consider himself a drug trafficker. Over the past decade, the 48-year-old balding man, who’s full of charm and speaks with a springy cadence, has transitioned to making medicinal products out of marijuana to help people in pain. “This,” he says as he pulls out a vial and drips a black, viscous glob on his finger, “is my medicine.”
Guzman is one of a growing group of Colombian entrepreneurs taking a big risk to treat patients with cannabis in a country where marijuana is practically a synonym for illicit drugs — and illicit drugs usually mean conflict. According to the country’s constitution, the cultivation and consumption of weed is legal for medicinal purposes, though its Ministry of Health and Social Protection hasn’t put out regulations on how the health industry can prescribe treatments, says Camilo García, a lawyer for medical marijuana patients who is also the executive director of the Colombian Cannabis Research Center. (A government official wasn’t available for comment.) Could these entrepreneurs be the brave few to blaze a new trail for Colombia’s drug trade, in which medical marijuana products will bypass drug trafficking?
More and more patients here with an incurable condition like chronic pain or epilepsy certainly hope so. And so do some government officials, who’ve recently pushed to reform Colombia’s marijuana laws. Last year, a Colombian senator introduced a bill to congress for legalizing medical marijuana, which even President Juan Manuel Santos has since endorsed. The congressional debate has yet to materialize, though, and that’s going to be a tough fight despite polls showing that most Colombians favor the bill, says John Walsh, a senior associate for drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, which advances human rights and social justice in the Americas.
Entrepreneurs dream of being able to export directly to the U.S., where sales of legal medicinal goods grew to $2.7 billion in 2014.
Indeed, what makes legalizing medical marijuana in Colombia really difficult are the “thriving black markets where criminal organizations dominate,” Walsh says. While some see a regulated market as a sort of Trojan horse for the drug’s recreational use, others worry about what might happen if it remains under-regulated. That’s because there are patients being treated with medicine “that has no testing whatsoever,” says Uruguayan physician Raquel Peyraube, who directs an ethno-botanical research clinic in Montevideo and sits on the country’s National Board of Drugs and the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis. In the absence of regulation, she explains, patients usually turn to self-dosing, which could backfire on a legalization effort if failed patient cases are used as an arsenal against those pushing for the drug’s wider availability.
Yet local entrepreneurs say there’s demand for medicinal products in Colombia. For one 54-year-old female, who fears prosecution and didn’t want to be identified, her company, based in Cali, Colombia, grew from her need to find a solution to her own health condition. She was suffering from crippling fibromyalgia and insomnia. Doctors prescribed a list of pharmaceuticals that, she claims, started to cause paralysis. So in a last-ditch effort, she tried marijuana. It worked.
After starting the business with her 28-year-old daughter just two years ago, she says, she now periodically travels to the U.S., where dispensaries in Colorado and California invite her to distill a batch of her medicine: an oil-based extract rich with cannabinoids, the chemical compounds found in Cannabis sativa that have medicinal effects. Demand, she says, is growing. And just as Guzman does with his company, others also dream of one day being able to export directly to the U.S., where sales of legal medicinal products grew to $2.7 billion last year, up from $1.5 billion in 2013, according to the industry research firm ArcView Group.
For their part, entrepreneurs like Guzman insist they’re playing by the rules and trying to serve their patients’ needs. While he wants to guarantee patients will have access to medicinal marijuana on a consistent basis, he admittedly isn’t in it for just them. The country’s drug-fueled conflict over the marijuana market burns red hot in Cauca, where Guzman grew up. But now, he argues, indigenous groups and farmers who cultivate the plant won’t be forced to sell their product to drug traffickers. They can sell to companies that make medicine. “This,” he says, “is the true revolution.”