Though it has such a long way to go before adopting legal status comparable to its neighbor to the north, Colombia’s medical cannabis industry is about to get kicked into the next gear.
Last week, the trade secretary and Colombia’s leading pharmaceutical companies announced new easing of guidelines on the export of medicinal cannabis. For marijuana, the ministry approved the export of 8,800 kilograms of products, while the Colombian Pharmaceutical Industry Association increased the export limit to 14,000 kilograms. The quota hikes come as two Colombian companies established exports for two of the country’s pharmaceutical companies, medical marijuana producer La Sapicola and a glucose-replacement medicine manufacturer.
Since last year, the government has sold out almost 2,000 kilograms of cannabis for medicinal use, and approved two more brand-new medical licenses this year: those for patients with multiple sclerosis and cardiomyopathy, and those for children with severe epileptic seizures.
Tensions between the U.S. and Colombia have flared in recent weeks after two alleged Canadian tunnels were found in Cartagena, one of which was intended to transport Canadian marijuana across the border. As of January, 10,000 bags of marijuana were seized in Colombia, though its role as a drug transit point in North America is usually thought of as limited to West Coast markets.
But the new guidelines are also a way for Colombia to capitalize on Western Hemisphere attitudes toward cannabis, which is becoming less illicit and widely accepted. Where in the U.S. states such as California, Colorado and Washington are blazing ahead with recreational marijuana legalization, in recent weeks the Colombian government announced a new license plan to make its own way into the global legal cannabis market.
In Colombia, however, it’s harder to measure the industry’s potential in terms of dollars. Only five Colombian companies are accredited by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as authorized producers of medical marijuana, none of which have any real production presence in the U.S. market.
So it’s difficult to say how much the government of Juan Manuel Santos’ center-right political party plans to earn from international sales, at least initially. A 2013 law allows patients with doctor’s notes to import domestically grown cannabis, but users must buy their products directly from government-authorized producers.
For now, the company running Colombia’s most significant medical marijuana program—a partnership between Bogota’s Chalice Biomedical Solutions and a medical firm in California—is exporting 1.5 kilograms of cannabis per month to Germany, its first U.S. destination.
In that program, Chalice and CannAscend—the California group that signed on as Chalice’s partner in January—provide two patients with a bag of the marijuana, while Columbia’s health ministry provides them with maps showing the company’s individual grow sites. The companies also collaborate on product development and market awareness.
Since January, 7,000 grams of cannabis have been shipped to an undisclosed list of countries. In a statement, the company says they are now focused on expanding the export program and keeping prices down, with suggested prices ranging from $4.90 per gram in Germany to $3.20 per gram in Denmark.
For now, those prices are at a premium compared to those found in North America, where some marijuana is openly available in state-run legal markets and increasingly in e-commerce websites. But Colombia officials say their program is designed to keep prices down for customers, which could eventually lead to lower retail prices for the local consumer.
The coming boost in the country’s legal marijuana market could also hasten Colombia’s efforts to secure an international position in the legal international market. In the north of the country, the prohibitionist Nature Conservancy is already working on a legal marijuana enterprise that could one day rival that of Canada, the world’s biggest exporter of the drug.