We Visited Some Cannabis Grows In Colombia To Figure Out If The Hype Is Real
“To determine if Colombia’s cannabis scene is actually all that, we had to see it to believe it.”
If you’ve been keeping up with the state of the international cannabis industry, then you’ve probably heard of Colombia being poised as the next major hub for cannabis exports.
With the perfect climate and geography for cultivation, low production costs, a vast network of experienced professionals in the field (illegal experience is still experience!), and the green-light from the INCB (International Narcotics Control Board) to grow and export over 25 percent of the world’s total production quota (40.5 tonnes), Colombia has had investors drooling over the chance to break into the world’s next star in the realm of legal cannabis.
“To date in the legal cannabis industry, it’s largely been all about indoor, high-end flower as a key product category. Going forward, the growth of concentrates, edibles, and pharmaceuticals means that this will less and less be the case,” said Tom Adams, managing director and principal analyst at BDS Analytics. “Colombia’s advantages as a low-cost, outdoor growth venue will place the country’s cultivators in good stead in worldwide markets.”
Here’s BDS’ Colombia forecast, with international and global spending toplines:
- International Spending – Accounts for legal spending in countries outside of North America (US and Canada).
- Global Spending – Accounts for spending in all legal markets.
- *All spending estimates are in Millions of US dollars
However, skeptics may look hard past all the buzz to wonder if Colombia’s purported role as a major supplier for Canada’s legal market is no more than hype, created by speculation around the rising South American pot star’s favorable regulations and media coverage of Canadian firms investing in its soil.
So to determine if Colombia’s cannabis scene is actually all that, we had to see it to believe it. With our bags packed with as many pairs of shorts our closets had to offer, a collection of sunglasses and the remains of last summer’s sunscreen lotions, we headed down there for a first-hand take on the situation.
We landed at an airport by the sea in the Caribbean city of Santa Marta, where we would check out a couple farms owned and operated by Avicanna — a Canadian cannabinoid research company that recently partnered with one of the largest agro companies in the world. To date, it’s also the only cannabis-focused company to be accepted into Johnson & Johnson’s incubator, JLABS @ Toronto – as reported by High Times in 2017.
All details aside, the farm extinguished any doubt left in our minds about cannabis in Colombia: The land of Shakira and Carlos Vives is exploding with more than just pop music!
A Little Context
Just last month, the Colombian company Ecomedics S.A.S. (doing business as Clever Leaves) became the first to legally ship cannabis to Canada, in what became the first export to ever receive authorization from both Health Canada and the Colombian National Narcotics Fund.
Other big, publicly-traded companies like Khiron Life Sciences, Pharmacielo, Aphria, the Wayland Group, Chemesis International, the Cronos Group, Canopy Growth, and Aurora Cannabis have also made multi-million dollars investments in the country.
Colombia actually began tracing a path towards legalization almost 30 years ago, when Law 30 passed, which legalized medical production. However, it wasn’t until 2015 that a set of regulations was established, and the production of cannabis was officially legalized.
Today, psychoactive and non-psychoactive forms of cannabis are legal, provided they’re bred for medical and scientific purposes. Recreational adult use remains illegal but possession of up to 20 grams and cultivation of up to 20 plants is decriminalized by the Supreme Court.
Regulations governing cannabis exports are still evolving: New Frontier Data’s 2019 report on the Latin American Cannabis Market states that only oil-based products are allowed to be exported. Even the Clever Leaves landmark shipment is still more promise than fact, since that first exported batch is meant only for lab testing, rather than for sale.
From 0 To 100 In A Second
We first visited Avicanna’s cannabis farms in May of 2018, as part of a trip that revolved around a symposium on medical cannabis in Santa Marta.
The Avicanna team mentioned they were building out one of the first legal marijuana grows in Colombia, and offered to give us a tour. They warned us there was not much there yet, except for a few buildings and some workers. However, the dream-like scenery of a soon-to-be mountainous cultivation site, just miles away from white sandy beaches and the even whiter snowy peaks, was definitely a sight to behold.
With no idea of the magic awaiting us at Avicanna’s grounds, we visited the same day, as it turned out, that the company’s first small plantlets arrived from their nursing and propagation facility. As the team prepared to plant each tiny clone carefully into its pot, we realized this would become an all-nighter: The plants had to be in the ground before the sun rose again so that their cycles would remain unchanged.
We observed legendary master grower Sergio Puerta (who has more than 30 years’ experience growing weed) smile to see his babies planted legally, for the first time ever. Puerta has lost friends, sleep, and entire crops to senseless prohibition policies — hence, the prospect of growing cannabis out in the open was a dream come true. Even his parents and wife were there to witness the historic moment.
After our visit to Avicanna, we spent the rest of the week at the symposium, speaking with cannabis scientists, executives, and growers about Colombia’s destiny to become a world-class cannabis producer. Yet, however interesting these conversations were, they left us somewhat disappointed — the concept of weed fields stretching for miles on end seemed to be more talk than reality.
At the time, Colombia’s “cannabis” fields, were empty, save for a few bulldozers roaming about. We then learned, however, that all licensed cannabis growers were just starting out, since back then, the state had only recently issued permits.
Return To The Hempire
As months went by, we wondered about what might become of Colombia’s potential to become one of the largest cannabis producers in the world. We figured that potential was bound to be realized sooner rather than later, especially considering that it takes five cents to produce a gram of cannabis in Colombia, versus $1.50 in Canada.
But while there was a lot to say about Colombia’s potential, we had yet to witness material proof of it actually becoming this promised land of pot. For all we knew, this could easily be a flunk.
Then, in early January — more than six months after our last visit to Colombia — we we got a call from Aras Azadian, Avicanna’s CEO working out of the company’s Canadian headquarters, and Lucas Nosiglia, the firm’s president for Latin America.
“We’re about to start the harvest,” they told us, and we jumped at the prospect of getting to see Colombia’s first-ever commercial cannabis harvest. Two weeks later, we boarded a plane in Miami (with unjustified fears of airport delays caused by the U.S. government shutdown) and within a few hours, we were back. Having stashed our sweaters in our bags, we were now soaking up the Caribbean sun.
A driver wearing a company V-neck was waiting for us outside the sea-side airport. We joined him on the back of a huge pickup truck and drove away. It felt like we were characters in an old drug cartel movie, about to meet the powerful drug lord to strike a deal. But no, we shook our heads, that was an old-world paradigm.
Colombia was now going legal, and everything we were doing there was strictly within the law. We settled into a sense of comfort, lending itself to excitement, as we awaited to see what these guys had accomplished in only six months.
Out of Our Dreams
Our tour began at a lab and an indoor grow. Everything looked alright, unexpectedly high-tech (especially considering we were in the middle of the mountains in the Caribbean), but altogether in line with what we’d seen before on our many tours through American cultivation facilities.
The peopled guiding us smiled. They knew what we most looked forward to seeing, but of course, Colombians know to keep the best course for dessert.
As we walked up the hill, each step felt like a heartbeat. We knew we were about to see the same babies all grown, but we didn’t expect the scene to look so much like our fantasy: a vast field of open-air crops, rooted in the soil, and protected only by a thin canvas ceiling.
The pictures speak the rest.
They first took us through the characterization and research area (or ‘ship’, as they called them), where stood roughly 60 different cannabis varieties, all ripe and ready to harvest. Next up, were the commercial ships. In there, all plants looked exactly the same — and with good reason, as the company is only cultivating two stains of low-THC, CBD-dominant strains for commercial purposes — both for the Colombia’s legal medical market and for exports.