The government’s decision to revoke the personal marijuana allowance won’t directly impact Colombia’s medicinal cannabis firms but it does raise questions about political support for the industry.
By: Luke Taylor
For a country trying to shake off a reputation as a hub of the illicit drugs trade, September was a frustrating month for Colombia. The United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime announced that a record 422,550 acres of the country’s territory had been used to grow coca – the raw ingredient of cocaine – in 2017. Several international media outlets also published stories on fights to control old guerrilla drug routes in the wake of the peace deal.
Old fashioned drug news called for old fashioned drug policy. While governments in the Americas and Europe move towards greater liberalization of the cannabis industry, one of Colombian president Ivan Duque’s first acts was to crack down on the drug. Just days after taking power he signed a decree permitting police to confiscate the dosis personal, the personal marijuana allowance.
At a press conference in Santander on 1 September, Duque announced that the police will be able to “confiscate any dose of drugs and hallucinogens in the streets of Colombia and thus confront the roots of the problems of micro-trafficking.” Fines would be introduced to deter recreational marijuana use.
BACKWARD STEP: Since 1994, Colombians have been able to carry up to 20g of marijuana for personal use, a legal allowance permitted by Constitutional Court ruling C-221/94, then ratified in 2012. Under previous president Juan Manuel Santos, controls on recreational use were further relaxed and legislation put in place for the development of the medicinal cannabis sector. What does the government’s stance mean for the current players and those looking to enter the market?
“The sector is expected to receive $200m of foreign investment in 2018”
The good news is that the new regulations have no effect on the current laws concerning the cultivation and production of cannabis products. However, it does ask broader questions about the new administration’s stance towards the industry.
That the government should identify the control of recreational use as its first social initiative – and thus a political priority – is a concern, as is the haphazard and at times contradictory messages sent by government officials in the days before and after the announcement of the decree.
CCI scoured the web for official statements from Duque or new Minister of Health, Juan Pablo Uribe, for statements on their position to the medicinal marijuana industry – something, at least, to distance it from recreational usage – but found nothing of note. Local players say key measures are required to allow them to finance, grow and bring their projects to market. At first glance, Duque’s stance seems less than supportive to these calls.
MIXED MESSAGES: A look beyond the headlines is more reassuring, however. Days after Duque’s announcement, he was contradicted by the Minister of Justice, Gloria María Borrero, who assured the public that they did not wish to “penalize” the personal use of marijuana, but “prevent the substance from being consumed in public spaces”. Declaring war on drug-trafficking is one thing, preventing teenagers from irritating families by smoking a spliff in a local park is another.
Much to the amusement of social media users, Minister Borrero then announced that “addicts” were exempt from the legislation and that to prove one was an addict they could use “the testimony of their parents.” This would include a signed letter, folded-up, perhaps, alongside weed and rolling papers.
The intentions of the law have been recast and its enforcement watered-down, showing a distance between rhetoric and application. It’s hard to believe that guitar-strumming, socially liberal Duque sees recreational cannabis as a major policing priority. But he represents the more pragmatic and technocratic elements of the right-wing ruling coalition, whose most influential figure remains Alvaro Uribe, president from 2002 to 2010 and Duque’s political mentor (or puppet-master, depending on who you speak to).
Duque has also promised to go after Colombia’s growing coca production – including through the widely-criticised method of aerial spraying – and appearing tough on illicit drugs is red meat to his socially conservative and religious voter base.
“Many people say the government is essentially technocratic and very professional in nature”, says Marcela Tovar Thomas, Director of Centro de Pensamiento y Acción para la Transición (CPAT), a Bogotá NGO campaigning for drug reform. “But others point to a parallel ultra-conservative agenda which means it does not clearly position itself on key issues. This decree was used to send a message of the Uribe agenda.”
The decree has been interpreted by many as an easy way to boost a fragile government’s public support, given that the majority of the Colombian public are in favour of penalising recreational drug use and drug-trafficking in schools has recently become a moral panic. Others point to it as a distraction tactic to take attention away from unpopular but necessary tax reforms.
However, investors hate uncertainty and Duque’s inability to define a clear party narrative on the topic of recreational marijuana and his apparent willingness to support populist policies for the purpose of scoring political points will do little to reassure them.
MONEY TALKS: Despite the negative publicity for their crop, the mood among Colombia’s cannabis investors remains calm. The government, having promised a strong-economy and facing a continued fiscal squeeze, is not expected to do anything to jeopardize a sector expected to receive $200m of foreign investment in 2018 and with the potential to develop into a multi-billion dollar industry.
“Perceptions of the industry will change once the first company start’s billing clients and paying taxes,” Leonardo Holguín, project director of CBD group, a Medellin based firm told CCI. “This industry is going to be bigger than flowers and coffee combined and the state will receive over 40% of revenues.”
Some believe the potential of the industry may have slowly dawned on self-interested political operators. “This war against micro-traffickers is simply an attempt to kick the small players out of the game, leaving powerful Colombian families to control the cannabis market,” one local entrepreneur told CCI.
MIDDLE MEN: Local firms are also heartened by a continuity of policy and personnel at the institutional level. Juan Pablo Uribe may not have yet demonstrated the progressive politics and can-do attitude of his predecessor Alejandro Gaviria, but many of the middle-ranking officials in the Ministry of Health responsible for cannabis remain in place.
At INVIMA, the food and drugs standards agency, the same individuals push forward necessary regulatory change to reclassify marijuana as a medical plant. Andres Lopez Velasco, director of the National Narcotics Fund (Fondo Nacional de Estupefacientes, FNE), has also continued in his position as a key public policy maker focussed on steering cannabis production towards its legal alternatives.
While ministers come and go, those working in the bureaucratic trenches are well aware of the fiscal imperatives confronting the healthcare service. Since 2015 the government has introduced admirable policies to expand the quality and coverage of its health providers, but the system has fallen into debt to the tune of $4bn.
In addition, CBD and THC products could help the healthcare industry make huge cuts to its drugs bills by replacing expensive foreign opiate products. “The government cannot go back as it is a constitutional right to prescribe the best medicine available for every illness”, Pablo Zuleta, a psychiatrist and cannabis consultant told CCI.
WAR! WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?: There are many things not to like about Duque’s approach to the dosis personal. It focuses on the wrong drug (cocaine and bazuko are far costlier to society), it stigmatizes a legitimate industry and it is almost certain to fail
“Marijuana growers can live incredibly well off twenty plants,” says Zuleta. “You could fumigate all the plants you want, but marijuana is going to continue growing inside people’s houses.”
Colombia’s medicinal marijuana industry – facing numerous bureaucratic hurdles – could do without the additional negative press, but political undercurrents and macroeconomic imperatives suggest that, now the conservative base has been appeased, the industry’s strong growth will continue.