Cannabis Industry Analyst, Latin American and the Caribbean
Colombia has been dealing with cannabis for at least one century now, and it has not been an easy or a steady ride. From widespread use to prohibition, influenced by the restrictive trends emanating from traditional and still current world centers of power, such as Europe and North America, Colombia has developed an industry that, despite wobbling and having to face local opposition and international stereotypes, is a reference to other countries.
Being a regional pioneer in terms of cannabis legislation, regulation and production, with some companies now expanding across its borders and gaining visibility for its genetic regulation and surging exporting capabilities.
As featured within The Latin American and Caribbean Cannabis Report, Colombia has been developing substantially over the past decade, not only in the cannabis field but in several other aspects. As a founding member of the free trade block Pacific Alliance in 2011, Colombia, a country of approximately 51 million people, boasts today a modern infrastructure, a growing FDI flow and a purposefully business-friendly environment, facilitated by a relatively stable political system and a peace agreement with the FARC that has been in place for some years now. According to the WTO, it takes only 10 days to start a business in the South American nation.
Cannabis in Colombia was decriminalised in 2012 and legalised in 2016, the year when the existing industry started to emerge, and in 2019 the Colombian Constitutional Court overruled a ban on the public consumption of cannabis, yet, adult-use cannabis remains illegal as of early 2021.
Speaking to Prohibition Partners, Jose Bacellar, CEO of the Colombian cannabis company VerdeMed, said:
“It is unclear at this moment if the “updated regulations” will ever come into effect. Colombia in 2016/7 made a promise to investors to create a regulatory framework that would make the country the world hub for low-cost production of legal cannabis global market.
The regulation of flower export is one of them. Hopefully, the proposed change will come into effect, moving in the direction of fulling the commitments to investors.”
The industry began to emerge a few years ago in the midst of a cannabis rush, particularly for cultivation, as some areas in Colombia offer attractive growing conditions, associated with a rich existing genetic diversity, a consequence of several decades of illegal cultivation, made the country a natural leader in the emerging cannabis industry worldwide, with a surge in cultivation licenses that reached almost 700 licences in the end of 2020 (including low and high THC content, and seed production) and consolidating itself as one of the top cannabis-related investments destinations, a trend that continues to exists as demonstrated by the recent news of a USD 3M investment from former NBA player Isiah Thomas in a local hemp and cannabis company.
According to 2020 data, approximately 70% of the cannabis companies in Colombia are mostly foreign-owned, demonstrating both the country’s openness to international businesses, the lack of financial resources or willingness to invest in the cannabis business, and the dependence on foreign investments, mainly from North America and Europe.
Some Colombian based companies are having increasing participation in international markets, with Khiron Life Sciences having a growing presence in several Latin American countries and in Colombia itself, and Clever Leaves, the first Latin American company achieving EU-GMP certification exporting to Europe and as announced recently also to Brazil.
Another local success story, Avicanna, exported over 100,000 cannabis seeds to Colorado in 2020, with other countries showing interest in Colombian seeds, as a result of the demanding requirements by the Colombian Agriculture Institute, ICA.
“Colombia offers the possibility of very low costs flower production. The land is not inexpensive, but labour costs and agriculture supplies are cheaper than any comparable in North America, and let’s not forget the climate – open fields growers and greenhouses for organic cannabis can get to four crops per year.
“No electricity, no buildings, or huge indoor lamp fields above the plants.” – Jose Bacellar
In terms of local demand, several challenges must be addressed, being the lack of knowledge about cannabis and CBD and its properties, amidst still existing prejudice against the plant. An absence of doctors prescribing cannabis treatments is also another issue to be overcome, in order to allow the potential demand for cannabis products Last year, Colombia reached the milestone of over 3,000 patients, while Khiron announced in December 2020 the opening of its 4th clinic with a focus of cannabis treatments, now covering Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellin, with over 6 million people, and a new record figure for cannabis prescriptions at 5.600, the vast majority from 2020 alone.
The country’s openness to the adoption of new technologies is highlighted by the association between Khiron and Bogota-based last-mile delivery platform Rappi, to explore cannabis products delivery, a company with a wide presence in Mexico and Brazil. Furthermore, the country’s surge of use of telemedicine, as a consequence of COVID-19, has reached almost 14% of total consultations in Khiron’s clinics in Zerenia.
Following the efforts to boost the cannabis industry, the government declared some companies such as Clever Leaves and Pharmacielo as a Project of Strategic National Interest (PINE), which means faster regulation, approvals, licenses and a conscious attempt to make the success of the sector a reality.
In the beginning of 2021, following the calls from the local industry, both small and medium and large producers, including 80% of Asocolcanna’s members, to allow for dry flower export – only finished products are allowed to be exported and sold – the Colombian Ministry of Health and Social Protection published a draft, related to Law 1787 and Decree 613 from 2017, aiming to facilitate access to cannabis products for Colombians and allowing companies to export dry flower.
This would represent a major change in the industry allowing for local companies to make better use of the cannabis biomass, reducing levels of waste considerably, and attending the global demand for dry flower, which still represents over 50% of the demand in many markets such as the US, Germany, and Australia.
This could also potentially facilitate selling raw material for extraction to other countries with emerging industries and pharmaceutical capacity. According to the draft, Colombian National Institute for Food and Medicine Surveillance (INVIMA) would be responsible for licence awarding while the National Narcotics Fund (FNE) would be in charge of supervising after licences are given.
In regards to how the future of the market looks, Jose Bacellar said:
“Going back to regulatory improvements, one that will be critical is the full regulation of the hemp and of the CBD markets.
“Colombia does not treat CBD as a natural health product, which limits its citizen’s access to all CBD formulations. The demand from the internal market can sustain as expansion beyond the agri-commodity. Colombia could be a global producer of oil, concentrates and white-label formulations.”
“The scale of the business is a critical success factor. If the main target is agriculture and oils for exports, meanwhile there is no internal market demand, investors must focus on complying with the markets they will target for export.”
As the draft for dry flower export is being analysed by Colombian authorities, some members the industry awaits with enthusiasm what could represent a new business opportunity, particularly for the many farmers who rushed excitedly into the opportunity some years ago, while the challenge of narcotics supervision remains one to be studied by the authorities and some local companies, such as Khiron and Pharmacielo, focus on the end value of a focus on finished products and how it attracts more sophisticated technologies.
The consensus seems to lay in the immediate benefits for the small and medium producers without vertical structures, while local and external demand for finished products grows, and the alluring possibilities that would arise for dry flower exports if the MORE Act becomes a federal reality in the Joe Biden administration in the US, creating a market of over US$7 billion where dry flower still represents the largest segment.
For a comprehensive analysis of the cannabis market across Latin America and the Caribbean, download a free copy of our dedicated industry report, published November 2020.
VerdeMed is a Canadian pharmaceutical cannabis company with a partnership with Greenfarma, a fully integrated Colombian business that operates from California. The company secures access to pharma-grade extracts, isolates and oils for Verdemed’s Medical Cannabis product line.
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