Colombia Looks to Become the World’s Supplier of Legal Pot

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The Americas Colombia looks to become the world’s supplier of legal pot By Anthony Faiola. Test plants thrive at the new cannabis cultivation and processing center of the Colombian subsidiary of Canada-based PharmaCielo, which is set to launch commercial sales and exports in the coming months, in Rionegro, Colombia. (Anthony Faiola/The Washington Post)

Tens of thousands of Colombians died in the U.S.-backed war on drugs. But after an official about-face on marijuana, Colombia is looking to exchange gun-toting traffickers for corporate backers in a bid to become the Saudi Arabia of legal pot.

The new industry is budding here on the outskirts of Medellin, where Pablo Escobar moved marijuana in the 1970s before becoming the “King of Cocaine.” Fifteen years after his death in a last stand with the law, cannabis plants are blooming in the emerald hills beyond the city, this time with the government’s blessing.

“You are looking at history,” beamed Camilo Ospina, the lab-coat-wearing chief innovation officer for PharmaCielo Colombia Holdings, gesturing like a showman before a sprawling greenhouse of pungent cannabis plants. His company is one of a fast-rising number of corporations seeking to leverage the “made in Colombia” label in a new age of legalization.

“Our advantage is that the Colombian brand already has a mystique,” he said. “We want to intensify that, so that the Colombian cannabis you already know — the Punto Rojo, the Colombian Gold — is the cannabis you want to buy.”

Colombia is still a hotbed of illegal drugs: A report last year from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency showed Colombia as the source of 92 percent of cocaine seized on U.S. soil. And after 18 years and $10 billion spent on Plan Colombia, the U.S.-funded effort to counter cartels and coca farmers, cocaine production here is at all-time highs.

Yet when it comes to marijuana, Colombia is taking a new tack: If you can’t beat ’em, regulate ’em.

In 2016, the country passed a landmark law legalizing medical marijuana for both domestic use and export, laying the groundwork for the new industry. The government started handing out the first licenses to grow, process and export medicinal cannabis in September, approving 33 companies so far. Legal growers such as Canadian-owned PharmaCielo are now raising test crops for upcoming product lines, with the first commercial sales and exports slated for the coming weeks and months.

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