A man tokes at a marijuana event in Medellin, Colombia on May 2, 2015. The event promoted legalizing home cultivation for recreational and medical purposes. (Raul Arboleda, AFP/Getty Images file)

World’s weed growers have new rival to fear from South America

BOGOTA — Colombia, famed for the violence of its cocaine cartels, is planning a move into the more genteel drugs business of marijuana-based oils and creams.

The Andean nation’s climate and regulations make it ideally suited to profit from the incipient trade in legal marijuana, Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria said in a Jan. 8 interview in his Bogota office. The country legalized use of the drug for medical purposes last month.

“This is going to be a new commodity, there’s an emerging global medical marijuana business,” Gaviria said. “This year, we’re going to see international companies coming to Colombia to produce medical marijuana.”

The increasing legal use of the drug in the United States, Canada and elsewhere creates an opportunity for Colombia to develop an export industry similar to wines in Chile and broccoli and asparagus in Peru, Gaviria said. Marijuana-based pharmaceuticals are used to alleviate pain and nausea stemming from chronic diseases and treatments such as chemotherapy. The highly regulated industry is a long way from the mass murders and kidnappings that marked the life of cocaine kingpins such as Pablo Escobar.

Existing pharmaceutical marijuana products include Sativex, a spray form of marijuana used to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis or chronic pain. The drug, developed by GW Pharmaceuticals, has been approved for use in 27 countries, according to the company’s website.

Under the new regulation in Colombia, companies need to request licenses to cultivate marijuana seeds and transform the plant into products such as oils and creams, Gaviria said. He declined to say which companies have expressed an interest in investing in the South American country.

Colombia was already a major producer of illegal marijuana, with much of the farming concentrated south of Cali, the nation’s third-largest city, in mountains controlled by Marxist rebels. Authorities seized 307 tons of the drug in 2014, up from 255 tons in 2010, according to data gathered by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Neither has Colombia left its cocaine problems behind. In 2014, the area planted with coca, the raw material for making cocaine, rose 44 percent to 69,000 hectares, according to the UNODC, more than in Peru and Bolivia combined.