A country notorious for drug trafficking wants to become a big exporter of legal weed

Precious cargo.
Precious cargo.
Image: Reuters/Jaime Saldarriaga
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Colombia, one of the world’s top drug producers, is about to legalize medical marijuana.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos told the BBC (link in Spanish) on Nov. 13  that he would sign a decree regulating the use, production, and export of medicinal marijuana sometime this week.

“There’s big demand,” Santos said. “There are already firms in Canada and the US that are using marijuana for a variety of therapeutic, medicinal treatments.”

The move is a major policy turnaround for Colombia, one of the staunchest backers of the US-led war on drugs.

Aided by billions of dollars from the US, officials in the Andean country have fiercely battled drug cartels for more than a decade. But more recently, the government is focusing on less punitive measures, such as a crop-substitution program to replace coca plants with legal farm products. Earlier this year, Colombia stopped aerial spraying of coca plantations because of concerns that the pesticide it used causes cancer.

As marijuana becomes legal in more countries, leaders in other Latin American countries have also been softening their approach on drugs. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana for recreational use.  In Mexico, the Supreme Court earlier this month ruled that smoking pot is a personal freedom protected by the constitution.

These shifts have encouraged a budding international trade in medicinal marijuana products. Mexico and Brazil (link in Portuguese) have started to allow the import of cannabidiol, an active chemical compound in marijuana used to treat children with epilepsy. Canada, where the use of medical marijuana is legal nationwide, allows its export and import for limited purposes, such as bringing in starter plants for a new grow, or shipping a unique strain to a research lab abroad.

Colombian officials are betting that legal marijuana exports could become a big business.

“There’s a global market that is going to grow and Colombia can participate in through big companies,” said Colombia health minister Alejandro Gaviria during a press conference on Nov. 13.

But some are skeptical, saying the economics are not in place for meaningful international flows of pot-related goods. In Canada, local producers provide enough marijuana to supply the local market, according to Health Canada, the agency that oversees pot production.

And growing the plant locally is cheaper and less bureaucratic than importing it, Marc Wayne, chief executive of Bedrocan Canada, told Quartz. The medicinal cannabis company imported marijuana from the Netherlands to get started, but has since switched to local production.

“Its strikes me as highly unlikely,” said Wayne about mass marijuana exports and imports.