Colombian President Iván Duque said last week that he supports the legalization of medicinal cannabis in his country despite his country’s history producing coca, the plant that can be processed into cocaine.
During a trip to Israel, Duque said that he is optimistic about the future for Colombia’s nascent regulated cannabis industry, which this year gained permission to export dried cannabis flower. But he also said that he will continue to fight the influence of violent drug cartels and the environmental degradation in his country caused by cocaine processing.
“In order to plant one hectare of coca in Colombia, two hectares of tropical jungle are destroyed,” Duque told the Associated Press. “The other thing is that to produce cocaine you have a very high carbon footprint. You use a lot of gasoline, a lot of cement,” adding that the dangerous chemicals used during cocaine processing are often dumped in the forest after use.
Duque added that the illegal coca trade in Colombia is still plagued by violence from drug cartels and remaining forces of the FARC rebel group, which continue to fight despite a peace agreement that was reached with the government five years ago. In October, Colombian forces acting on intelligence provided by the U.S. and the U.K. captured Dairo Antonio Úsuga, known by the alias Otoniel, the country’s most wanted drug trafficker. Úsuga was captured in a jungle hideout after being sought by authorities for a career of violence and corruption that went back more than a decade.
“One of the most dangerous criminals in the world, and especially in Colombia, who had ordered the killing of environmental leaders, was Otoniel, the kingpin we captured two weeks ago,” said Duque.
A conservative politician, Duque has warned how drugs can “destroy” families and issued a presidential decree banning possession of drugs in public areas, contradicting a ruling by the country’s high court that permitted the possession of small amounts of cannabis, cocaine, and other drugs. He also supports aerial eradication efforts to destroy coca crops in his country, which has seen a significant spike in cocaine production. But he believes there is a significant difference between cannabis production for medicinal purposes and full legalization.
“We’re not using cannabis for recreational purposes. We’re using it for medical purposes,” said Duque, who will leave office after an election to choose his successor next year.
Colombia legalized medical cannabis cultivation in 2016, but until this year exports were limited to active pharmaceutical ingredients, a regulation that limited the economic potential of the crop for the nation. But in July, Duque signed a presidential decree to relax the regulations and permit the export of dried medicinal cannabis flower, which is in high demand in foreign markets including Europe and Israel.
“This means Colombia can enter to play a big role in the international market,” Duque said after signing the decree, adding that the Latin American cannabis exports could one day total as much as $6 billion per year. The president also noted that adding the new rules would allow Colombia’s cannabis industry to expand into foods and beverages, cosmetics, and other products.
“We’re seeing a lot of international investment coming to Colombia,” said Duque.
Andres Fajardo, the president of Colombian medicinal cannabis cultivator Clever Leaves, says that Colombia’s climate is perfect for growing cannabis. Situated on the equator, the country gets a consistent 12 hours of sunlight per day throughout the year, while the elevation of cultivation sites in the Andes makes it possible to cultivate high-quality cannabis using less pesticides to control disease and bacteria than other areas.
“If you think about it, greenhouses in other countries are trying to emulate the natural conditions we get here for free,” Fajardo told CNN. “Your factor costs in terms of labor are significantly cheaper.”
Juan Diego Alvarez, vice president of regulatory issues for cannabis producer Khiron Life Sciences, believes that allowing cannabis to be exported from Colombia is only the beginning of a new era for the industry.
“Lifting the prohibition on exporting the dry flower will start a regulatory process which we hope will be performed in great detail, to the highest international standards,” said Alvarez.
Duque traveled to Jerusalem to mark the opening of a Colombian innovation center in Israel, which has more than 100,000 licensed medical cannabis patients. At a discussion panel with the Colombian president hosted by Start-Up Nation Central, which connects governments and international businesses to Israeli entrepreneurs, company CEO Avi Hasson said that collaboration between the two countries can be mutually beneficial.
“Innovation is probably the solution to most of our problems,” Hasson said. “Even those created by innovation, they will still need to be solved by innovation.”