Why is a constructive dialog between the government and private sector key to the development of medical cannabis?
This is a new industry that has a complex reputational challenge. We are coming after decades of prohibition, and this substance has caused, especially in Colombia, many deaths because of the war on drugs. We just started a debate on changing the framework that we have been following for 50 years, the war on drugs Richard Nixon declared. Nowadays, we are trying to open a debate to explore new policies, dealing with public health, human rights, access, quality, security, and a fair price. The industry, instead of continuing the way it is right now to be first, should instead put together resources as a common team to address this reputational challenge. They should invest, for instance, in track and trace, which is a fundamental aspect in building trust among regulators, patients, and doctor. On the other hand, scientific research is also common ground where the industry should invest and build alliances with universities and medical societies and make significant progress building up scientific evidence so people can approach this substance with a new vision.
What is your perspective on the growth of the industry?
Colombia has a big opportunity because of its geographic position and proximity to the equator. We have the sunlight that other countries do not. I am the son of a political leader who was assassinated by the war on drugs. This is why my political position is a favorable one to promoting this debate and presenting legislation that is now law. This, however, is a cultural process that takes time, and it is more important to treat this product like a pharmaceutical product. There is a weed rush or weed fever and everyone wants to be a billionaire by growing cannabis. In a couple of years, the industry is going to come to its senses after this fever passes and only the ones with a clear path of quality, good manufacturing processes, access to Europe, and track and trace are going to survive. There are going to be changes in this industry, and Colombia has the right approach, beginning with medical cannabis, which is the highest standard. After that we can move on to recreational and what adults use, keeping with this high standard of regulation and trust. Some countries have regulated adult and medical use at the same time, which is a little chaotic. I visited Colorado and witnessed its approach to regulating medical cannabis for 10 years before going to the next step of adult or recreational use. Colombia is taking the right approach.
How would you relate Colombia's framework compared to other countries in the region trying to establish a medical cannabis industry?
A few other countries have strong regulatory institutions for this industry. Colombia and Chile are strong, but apart from these I have my doubts. Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru need to strengthen their institutions, and I do not know if they are prepared to have the institutional framework needed for the industry. If the federal level of the US moves on, that will facilitate issues the industry is dealing with, especially financial and banking, which is putting a stop to the industry. They need a federal law.
How has the medical cannabis industry helped break the stigma?
It is a process. The first step was getting the law approved, and then setting up the regulatory framework to apply it. Institutions need the human and technical resources to be able to regulate the industry. We have many universities here that are at an advantage in conducting studies by needing far less money to do such studies than in Europe or the US. If we are able to showcase a successful example of people involved in illicit drugs that can get involved in legal, entrepreneurial projects, it will be an example for the rest of the world.
What impact will this industry have in boosting employment and affecting the overall economy and mentality of Colombians?
There is a major opportunity for rural areas and for the agricultural sector, which has long been in a crisis in Colombia. We have been concentrating on cattle ranching, but with climate change, it is now one of the worst things you can do. Since we invented the flour industry in Colombia, we have not invented anything new. We have an extractive emphasis on all we do, with no added value or technology transfer. This is an opportunity the medical cannabis industry can provide to the country, transferring technology and giving advantages to rural areas. We did not want the cannabis industry here to be a global maquila of marijuana. We want added value and the transfer of technology. This is a key factor and issue for regulations.
What is your perspective for the industry in 2020, and what will be your next role in the senate in the process of legalization?
If we have a move from the US federal government, it will expedite the changes everyone is waiting for. I am in favor of regulating all drugs. I am against prohibition and the war on drugs. Drugs have preexisted humanity, and when humanity disappears, drugs will continue to exist. We have to deal with them and have a less problematic relationship with substances. I also hope we can move forward with coca leaves. They have an ancestral use by indigenous populations, and health problems can be treated with coca. There is a prominent scientist in Colombia, Marisol Duque, who has been conducting research on liver diseases and treating them with coca leaves. That is the next step for us. Coca is at the core of the cocaine business in Colombia. If we deal with coca cultivation and business, we can make a huge step forward in changing the absurd policy on drugs.