Colombia is a country with boundless natural resources. The only South American nation to border both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, it boasts a forgiving climate, beautiful beaches, green mountains, and a vibrant cultural legacy. Unfortunately, Colombia also has a recent history of political violence in which both cannabis and cocaine play a large part.
Since the mid-1960s, Colombia has been plagued by protracted armed conflict between the democratic electoral government and various populist guerilla groups. One of the most powerful of these groups is the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC in Spanish). The FARC’s manifesto has shifted over time, but it began as a militia focused on defending the Colombian rural class from military raids against Marxist agitation for agrarian reform.
By now, the FARC has many of the markers of a terrorist organization – its tactics include kidnapping and extortion. By far, though, the greatest source of the FARC’s power is in the manufacture and distribution of cannabis and cocaine.
The coca plant from which pure cocaine is processed grows indigenously across the northern continent, and in especially high concentrations in Colombia. Cannabis, meanwhile, is a more recent crop, introduced to the country via Panama in the 1920s. Both plants prosper in the temperate climate, and consequently, both skyrocketed as some of Colombia’s biggest illicit exports beginning in the 1960s – by the 1980s, an estimated 50 to 60% of the cannabis and 70 to 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the United States came from Colombia.
When the U.S. helped to dismantle Colombia’s notorious cartels in the 1990s, the FARC came to fill the power vacuum and now controls much of the country’s drug exporting. And while most of the cannabis within the U.S. now comes from Mexico or from newly-legalized homegrown operations, Colombia still leads the way in cocaine supply. A large part of fertile southern Colombia is under armed FARC control, and the faction has a stranglehold on both cannabis and cocaine. Under the auspices of populist solidarity, FARC leaders task Colombian farmers in occupied regions with planting coca and cannabis; it then levies heavy taxes on both the farmers and buyers. The FARC’s coca territory continues to grow, with a 39% increase in acreage between 2013 and 2014. As of 2015, they effectively owned an estimated 211,000 acres of coca plants — that’s an area larger than Washington, DC.
The Colombian government has taken drastic measures to curtail this cocaine production. Planes began spraying coca crops with herbicide in the 1990s with U.S. backing (and with U.S. resources — many spray operations have been led by private American military contractor DynCorp), but Colombia halted this strategy in May 2015, citing health concerns.
More recently, boots-on-the-ground tactics have yielded huge gains: in 2016 so far, Colombian forces seized 146 metric tons of cocaine.
These government crackdowns have paved the way for diplomacy. Threatened by military action, the FARC agreed to peace talks; in June 2016, government leaders and FARC representatives met in Havana and finally agreed to a ceasefire, the terms of which require the FARC to demilitarize, disband, and give up control of drug trafficking in exchange for more legitimate status as a political party.
Concurrent with the finalization of these peace talks, Colombia formally legalized medical cannabis in December 2015. Although the country had legalized possession of small amounts of cannabis (and cocaine) for personal use in 1994, this new, broader medical legalization allows for large-scale commercial cultivation and scientific study. President Manuel Santos described the ruling as a move that puts Colombia “at the forefront of the fight against illnesses.”
But beyond scientific advancement, legalization also provides Colombia with a huge opportunity for financial benefit. Since December, the government has openly invited international companies into Colombia to grow cannabis for the production of packaged medical products. PharmaCielo, one company that has already taken advantage of the opportunity, projects 1,500 acres of active Colombian cannabis cultivation within two years. The message to would-be illicit cannabis kingpins is clear: legal and regulated production will drive the cannabis’ black market value down significantly.
Although Colombia’s government has so far only invited outside parties to capitalize on medical cannabis, there’s an as-yet untapped opportunity to win the hearts and minds of Colombia’s rural farmers. When FARC forces give up control of cocaine production, coca farmers will lose a primary source of income.
A preliminary crop substitution program has already gone into effect, in which former coca farmers are trained to harvest legal crops like bananas and coffee plants — but substituting medical cannabis plants could be another, even more profitable option.
The plant’s affinity for Colombia’s climate has already yielded a few distinct regional sativa varieties, Colombian Gold and Punto Rojo, which have enjoyed huge popularity in the U.S. The opportunity for further cultivation of these landraces, and for further crossbreeding, could be a boon to medical cannabis growers and consumers alike.
The Future of Legal Marijuana
Recreational legalization could open up even more pathways to prosperity. As Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have shown, general legal use can usher in a wave of ancillary businesses like dispensaries and delivery services. For now, though, Colombia’s official cannabis policies will be restricted: in the wake of the legalization announcement, Justice Minister Yesid Reyes clarified that
“Nobody is talking about legalizing anything except for [medical and scientific] purposes.”
Colombia has become popular with American tourists in the last few years, but anyone looking to troll around Medellín or Cartagena for some easy weed should think twice. Although illegal cannabis is generally tolerated in Colombia, there’s something uniquely irresponsible about drawing attention to the loopholes of one drug market while the country is recovering from the devastation of another.
Bagley, Bruce. “Colombia and the War on Drugs.” Foreign Affairs 67.1 (1988): pgs 70-92
Miroff, Nick. “Peace with FARC may be coming, so Colombia’s farmers are on a massive coca binge” Washington Post, July 8, 2016
Miroff, Nick. “The staggering toll of Colombia’s war with FARC rebels, explained in numbers.” Washington Post, August 24, 2016