They won’t be making a blood-soaked cable series out of Felipe de la Vega’s life.
Maybe a G-rated documentary.
A Colombian commodities trader turned cannabis producer, de la Vega is one of many entrepreneurs in his South American homeland who’s trying to transform the country’s murderous drug trade into a legal and peaceful export business.
And with its freshly opened pot laws, Canada has become a prized target for some of these statutory products — and those from other countries that have been plagued by drug violence.
“Basically it’s part of the peace process that Colombia engaged in (with the country’s guerrilla factions) in the last administration,” says de la Vega, CEO of Medcolcanna Organics Inc. “The idea is to start legalizing everything.”
One of the products to receive initial government blessing was medical marijuana. And that’s the one de la Vega fixed on as Colombia’s market took its wholesome new turn.
With some 7.5 hectares of cannabis under cultivation — rich in the plant’s medicinal CBD component — his company has applied for a permit to enter a Canadian market fairly panting for such products. Aside from some immediate regulatory hurdles, however, de la Vega will have to overcome the stigma attached to his country by violent images of the drug trade, in headlines and Hollywood offerings, over decades.
Colombia is not the only country with a violent drug past looking to enter a legal international market that’s expanding rapidly.
Diane Scott, the Toronto-based chair and CEO of the Jamaican Medical Cannabis Collective (JMCC), says the island is changing. “When I first was asked to consider making the investment in Jamaica … the impression (was) there was a significant and maybe scary drug issue,” Scott says. “That was actually very false once I got into doing the due diligence.”
Rod Elliot, a cannabis industry watcher with the Toronto consulting firm Global Public Affairs, says “a lot of people’s mindsets are still stuck in the 1990s drug wars
“So the idea that a country like Colombia … would actually be developing (a legal cannabis industry), for people who are not in the industry, they would find it a little surprising.”
(Elliot notes that other countries like Israel and Uruguay are also looking to get in the game.)
Alhough recreational cannabis has blown into the front of Canada’s pot consciousness since its legalization last October, it’s the growing medicinal market — open in limited measures since 2001 — that most foreign sellers are after, Elliot says.
They think at least initially that “there’s going to massive global demand for this.”
Pills, salves, balms and other nostrums — as well as the refined oils and powders to make them — are the current focus of the foreign exporters, Elliot says. And to win entry into the Canadian market, he says, at least two steps must be taken.
First, the countries themselves must formalize medical cannabis protocols, setting up production regulations and quality controls that are acceptable to marijuana mandarins here in Ottawa, Elliot says.
Second, foreign growers must apply for importation licences into Canada — which currently allow only for small amounts of seed and flower products bound for academic research labs, Elliot says.
“So there is no commercial opportunity right now,” he says. “But obviously there is a view that as the cannabis industry matures, as demand continues to grow for more recreational (and) medicinal and wellness products, that this could be a real growth business.”
Indeed, Elliot speculates that Canada’s research restrictions may be fleeting — remaining in place simply because Health Canada has yet to address them.
And when regulators here do turn their sights on foreign producers — looking at their security, production and other compliance measures — those restrictions may well disappear, he says.
“I think it’s a matter of when, not if.”
That is what de la Vega — whose company was listed last month on the Calgary-based TSX Venture Exchange — is hoping as his import applications work through the system here.
The illegal Colombian trade, once dominated by the likes of cocaine cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar and his successors, is nowhere near a spent force, de la Vega admits.
“For certain 100 per cent of the (illegal) drug production has not been eliminated,” he says. “But on the other hand (new laws) allow the government to demonstrate that whoever was a (drug-cartel-funded) guerrilla and negotiated, can now be on the legal side.”
De la Vega says Colombia has pursued the dual strategy of doggedly persecuting the country’s “bandit” elements, while offering a space in the legal trade, to those willing to take part.
And that legal space has attracted both former cartel members and new entrepreneurs like his Medcolcanna Organics. Room is being made for these legal entrants in areas and facilities that once were the domain of the criminal trade.
“Many associations and many groups in the areas where violence played a big part in our history, they have migrated to medical cannabis too, under all the legal aspects,” de la Vega says.
As well, he says, cannabis oil extraction companies like his — which are not located in the former illegal strongholds — must by law acquire at least 10 per cent of their raw product from growers in locations where illegal drugs were being produced.
There are obvious and abundant advantages to producing cannabis products in Colombia, de la Vega says.
Straddling the equator, the country offers growers a virtually uniform, 12-hour day throughout the year — ideal light conditions to induce cannabis flowering. The weather is moderate and constant though the seasons, while the soil has proven pot-friendly, de la Vega says.
“And the next one is we have a very trained workforce for flower cutting. Colombia is the second largest exporter of flowers in the world.” He adds that the specialized labour is cheap.
As a result of the flower industry — and doubtless the illegal cannabis trade as well — the country has also developed an expertise in the erection and operation of the open-air greenhouses, where much of the legal production will take place. These plastic-covered structures allow for sunlight light adjustment and pest control but rely on the surrounding environment for heat.
“We don’t have to use any pesticide or fungicide,” de la Vega says.
He says his greenhouse production costs come in at about $10 to $15 per square metre, where the closed glass structures employed in more northern climates can range from $100 to $300 for the same space. De la Vega says his company is just starting an open-field growing trial to augment its greenhouse production.
While Canada allows only small research-sized imports, de la Vega says Colombia itself has banned the exportation of cannabis flower — the commerciallly useful part of the plant — to establish a domestic extraction industry for oils and other products. It’s those extracted products, and finished medicatons, that the country would export to countries like Canada.
But he hopes to take advantage of current shortages of many cannabis products here to gain a foothold for his medical extracts in the Canadian market. He expects applications can get approval on a case-by-case basis.
De la Vega says his company is developing eight medicinal extracts and formulations — in pill, oil and capsule forms — including products aimed at reducing insomnia and controlling common bowel conditions like Crohn’s disease.
In Jamaica, a 2015 law made possession of medical marijuana legal , as well as small amounts of recreational pot. And that — coupled with the deep religious, cultural and research experience with cannabis that’s been woven through Jamaican society — presented a more placid pot picture there than Diane Scott of the Jamaican Medical Cannabis Collective had expected to find.
“That’s a very different story than obviously the one I had in my head when I went down as an investor,” says Scott, a York University grad.
With nine hectares (amounting to about one million square feet) of cultivation in Jamaica, JMCC produces nothing but medicinal marijuana products, which it exports to medically licensed jurisdictions around the world.
The company currently has contracts for sales in Canada, Germany, Australia and Brazil. Canadian contracts are currently limited to research projects.
And Scott says her company has taken an ambassadorial role in promoting the cultural connection Jamaicans have with cannabis. She says that connection, coupled with the country’s natural growing advantages and advanced regulatory regime, makes it among the the best places on earth to produce the product.
“So when it comes to importing our medical products into Canada, I feel we have a good basis to overcome perceptions that are already becoming out of date,” she says.
Scott’s crops — which are rendered into dry bud and oils — are produced in mesh-sided greenhouses, which allow the island’s near-constant 53-per-cent humidity and sea and mountain breezes to work their wonders on the plants.
She says security measures at her growth and processing facilities mirror those mandated at Canadian cannabis facilities. This includes fencing, cameras and 24-7 armed guards.
Scott says her company, launched in 2017, has contracts with several Canadian producers, who in turn have import applications before federal health authorities. As well, a pair of Canadian cannabis operations have outsourced production, packaging and global distribution to the company.
The company is also participating in clinical trials around the world with one, at London’s Western University, looking at three cannabis-based compounds that may help to combat psychosis and anxiety.
Despite it being a fledgling industry here, Elliot of Global Public Affairs says there is room in Canada for imported cannabis products, especially in this time of initial shortages.
As well, experts say several big producers here are looking to expand their growing operations into countries like Jamaica and Colombia, where lower heating and lighting costs can amp up profits and production yields.
But as the global industry matures, the international cannabis trade will naturally come to resemble that found in many other sectors, Elliot says.
“Five years, 10 years down the road, yeah I think you’re absolutely going to be seeing cannabis product the same way you have beer or wine …produced in other countries.”
Joseph Hall is a Toronto-based reporter and feature writer. Reach him on email: firstname.lastname@example.org