In 2016, Colombia passed a landmark framework regulating the production, distribution, sale, and export of seeds and other cannabis derivatives. It became one of the largest countries in the world to regulate cannabis production and exportation. However, this experiment required adaptation and a real time reaction to the political and global cannabis market conditions.
In late July of 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque authorized the legal sale and global export of dried cannabis flowers and biomass for medical purposes. With the signing of this decree — Decree 811 — the Colombian government released the country from the shackles that prevented it from dominating, if not conquering, the international cannabis market.
This was an enormous feat in the face of great competition for international cannabis market share. Cannabis has been decriminalized and allowed for medical use in several regions of North America, Africa, Australia, Europe, and South America. Today, over thirty-eight countries have legalized and regulated some form of commercial or medical cannabis. This is what we refer to as the global cannabis industry. The global cannabis economy is expected to reach a value of $45 billion by 2025. Every month, it seems a new cannabis policy development occurs in a region of the world that no one saw coming. It is extraordinarily competitive and cutting edge.
In late 2020, even the ultra conservative United Nations voted to reclassify cannabis for medicinal purposes away from a category of the world’s most dangerous drugs. This was a highly anticipated and long-delayed decision that could clear the way for the expansion of marijuana research and medical use. This vote removed cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs — where it was listed alongside dangerous and highly addictive opioids like heroin, and signaled a new era for the global, regulated commercial treatment of this plant. That said, the foundation for global commercial cannabis has been set. But who will emerge as a winner?
Colombia certainly has a leading edge in that category. With its rich agricultural history and emerging stature in one of the fastest growing regions of the world, Colombia has demonstrated that one does not have to create a perfect law from the very beginning. Rather, it has to be adaptive, evolving, and responsive to the marketplace. To the country’s credit, it has done so. In fact, it has amended its regulations in conjunction with its cannabis regulatory and export agencies on various occasions over the previous four years to enact needed changes to allow its licensees a chance to compete globally. In late February, Colombia released new regulation industrial hemp, a sign of the country’s willingness to learn and adapt sound policy. In doing so, it has served as a model for the world regarding the required flexibility in regulating cannabis – a plant which has come out of the illicit market and into the mainstream. With the Republic of Mexico set to enact a new comprehensive cannabis law, this lesson is critical.
After the adverse impact on Latin American societies and economies caused by decades of failed U.S. drug policy, it is a pleasure to see nations such as Colombia leading the way in cannabis market reform, establishment, implementation, and enforcement. It will be leadership from countries across the Latin American region that will ultimately show the United States how to legalize and regulate cannabis for international commerce. Now, that is a story that I didn't see coming; and this region has given the cannabis industry enormous international credibility.
This starts with the sort of political leadership provided by someone like Juan Manuel Galán Pachón. Next, it becomes incumbent upon the individuals within these government agencies and institutions who have taken on the difficult job of enacting and enforcing regulations concerning the business licensing, cultivation, processing, and distribution of cannabis and its derivatives, globally. These individuals – especially those trained in the law – have been essential in nearly every jurisdiction on Earth in creating the rules, the guidelines, and the framework for brand new industries.
Yet, cannabis is different. There is a staggering amount of stigma attached to this plant. Of course, this comes as a result of recent history and the restrictive control governments have enforced on cannabis for decades. Yet, these individuals, like Galán, took up the challenge of overseeing an industry that remains controversial. They did it with grace and intelligence. Most people will never appreciate the hard work, dedication, and the pioneering spirit that went into the assembly, execution and enforcement of the cannabis regulatory framework in Colombia. For those businessmen and women, students, policy leaders, and industry participants that follow this issue, and who study this book, it is quite clear that what happened in Colombia over the past several years regarding cannabis is an amazing story, and a true lesson in grit and determination.
With some of the most well-established international cannabis companies headquartered in Colombia, it embarks on a pathway whereby it will compete on a global scale with Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, Israel, Germany, and numerous other European countries for access to medical markets, adult-use markets, research and development, technology innovation, and overall industry advancement. The sky is indeed the limit for these industry participants and for the adult user and patient populations that they serve. Yet, none of it would be possible without the establishment of sound fundamental rules and regulations, which can be amended from time to time as necessary to respond to the needs of a nascent global cannabis marketplace in a region that is so aptly suited for success in this industry.
As the movement of the Cannabis industry ebbs and flows, Galán, along with the rest of these trailblazers, continue to propagate the wise words of Swiss explorer, Bertrand Piccard, “The pioneering spirit is less about thinking up new ideas, as ridding ourselves of dogmas and habits that hold us captive in thinking.” Pack it up and see what tomorrow brings.
This article was originally published on Forbes and appears here with permission.