Excitement as Colombia, home of cocaine, eyes a new drug market

Excitement as Colombia, home of cocaine, eyes a new drug market

VicesApril 13, 2018 By Reilly Capps

Meet the new Colombian Narcos. With an eye on running the world market for a drug.

Only: they're not gun runners. They're not smugglers. And their drug isn't cocaine.

It's marijuana. And it's legal now.

"We've always been really good at growing drugs," said Daniela Vergara, PhD, smiling. She was raised in Colombia and now, as evolutionary biologist, studies the cannabis genome at the University of Colorado Boulder, but still keeps an eye on her birth country. "Now, we're doing it legally."

[Dr. Daniela Vergara, cannabis researcher. Photo from the Cannabis Genomic Research Initiative.]

Like Vergara, the new Narcos are more likely to wear lab coats than holsters, more likely to host scientific conferences than drunken birthday parties.

But they realize just as well as the old brand of outlaws that Colombia is nearly a paradise for agriculture. It's the world's biggest exporter of flowers.

And two years ago, when the government legalized the large-scale production, processing and export of the world's most popular flower, they did it in a way that makes cannabis consultants excited.

"We're still in the early stages of this market," said Emily Fata of Diagon Ventures. She consults on cannabis projects in the South American nation. "Colombia could be — hypothetically — the biggest exporter of cannabis in the world,"

One estimate is that the country could produce enough weed to satisfy 44 percent of the world market.

There are a few reasons why. First, the climate is nearly ideal, and there's no winter. Second, costs of labor are low. So cannabis production costs should be lower than nearly anywhere.

Third, unlike the American government, the Colombians are open to scientific research, which could help them learn how to turn weed into helpful pharmaceutical products for other markets.

It's not all smooth. The government won't allow export of marijuana flower, only concentrates and derivatives. So unless laws change, Colombia could only really dominate the extract market, not the flower market.

Still, these factors mean Colombia is already attracting huge foreign investment, especially from Canada. Canada's lenient laws make it a huge global player in the world of cannabis. A Canadian company called PharmaCielo became the first licensed pot grower and processor in Colombia. And another Canadian company called Khiron has a licence to cultivate there.

This worries some Colombians, that Colombia's likely boom in cannabis revenue will flow overseas, instead of to the farmers who've been growing it for decades, and who've suffered so much under prohibition.

This is all a sign of how quickly the cannabis market changes. One day Colorado's on top, next day it's California, tomorrow it might be Colombia.

"Colombia is an exciting place for cannabis," said Vergara.

[Cover photo of the fertile hills of Colombia by Julian Andres Carmona Serrato on Unsplash.]