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Colombia's President Signs a Decree Legalizing Medical Weed

The move puts Colombia at the forefront of a wave of moves to decriminalize marijuana use, and in some cases production, that is gaining momentum in Latin America.
Photo de Luis Eduardo Noriega/EPA

Colombia's president has legalized the production and sale of medical marijuana, putting the country firmly within a wave of more liberal attitudes to weed that is currently sweeping Latin America.

"This decree puts Colombia in the group of countries that are leading in the use of natural resources to combat disease," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said after signing the decree that takes effect on Wednesday.


The document — signed by the president and the minister of health -— regulates the possession of seeds and plants, as well as their production, distribution, marketing and export for "strictly medical and scientific purposes." The creation of an "export license" giving producers the right to sell cannabis-based medicines to countries where they're legal, opens the way for the production of marijuana-based medication for the international market.

Related: Do Pot and Booze Mix? There's a Turf War in Canada Over Where to Sell Weed

"There's a massive demand," Santos told the BBC last month, before highlighting "businesses in Canada and the USA."

For Hannah Hetzer, Americas Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, the order signals that attitudes are shifting across Latin America. "For the past few years, Latin American presidents have become some of the strongest voices on the global stage calling for a different approach to drug policy" she told VICE News. "President Santos's decree on medical marijuana is a demonstration that he is committed to ensuring that reform takes place within his own country, not just internationally."

The decree allowing the production and sale of medical marijuana comes three years after Colombia's congress decriminalized the possession of up to 20 grams for personal use. A study last year by the Ministry of Health found that 11.5 percent of Colombians questioned had used the drug at least once.


Colombia's opening up to the idea of legal marijuana joins several other decriminalization efforts elsewhere in Latin America. Uruguay fully legalized the drug in 2013, with not other country getting close to such an ambitious move. But last month Mexico's supreme court ruled in favor of the right of four individuals to cultivate and use marijuana for recreational purposes. A bill paving the way for legal recreational use was approved by Chile's lower house of Congress and is currently in the Senate.

Related: The Mexican President Promises a Debate on Marijuana Legalization

Some pro-legalizers, however, expressed concern that the new medical marijuana market in Colombia will benefit big pharmaceutical companies more than it does the legalization movement.

"We do not want pharmaceutical companies displacing or exploiting those doing good work because they have no muscle," Marcela Tovar Thomas, a drug policy reform advocate with the local Center of Thought and Action for Transition (CPAT) told VICE News. "I hope there will be measures to guarantee equal access to permits [to grow], which is not the same as monopolised control from the big pharma companies."

"When reforming drug policy we mustn't forget that the majority of victims of prohibition are the weakest," Tovar said. "We cannot make them yet more weak."

For Julian Quintero, the director of the Colombian pro-legalization group Social Technical Action (ATS), the decree is a "good step" but he isn't holding his breath for over-the-counter medical pot. "The reality of implementation will create many challenges that require constant consultations and adjustments," he told VICE News. "I don't think we'll see medical cannabis on the market within two years."


Related: 16,000 People and Counting Want DEA Chief Fired for Calling Medical Marijuana a 'Joke'

Colombia's conservative inspector general lead the charge against the legalization of medical marijuana. "It weakens the fight against drugs and threatens citizens," Alejandro Ordoñez told local media when the decree was drafted last month.

That fight has long been associated with cocaine rather than marijuana in Colombia which is reportedly retaking its crown from Peru as the world's largest producer of coca, the base product of the drug. Most marijuana produced in the country is for local consumption, whereas cocaine is exported worldwide.

Colombia's varied armed groups — from leftist rebels to right-wing paramilitaries — make money producing and trafficking coke.

The nation suspended aerial fumigations of coca plantations earlier this year citing the World Health Organization's remarks that the herbicide used, glyphosate, could be carcinogenic.

Santos, however, has repeatedly renewed his commitment to eradicate cocaine production, the lynchpin of bilateral relations with the United States that has provided nearly $10 billion since 2000 to the cause, according to a US congressional report. The government is currently exploring manual eradication and crop substitution programs instead.

For now, the president made it clear, any decriminalization only goes as far as marijuana-based medicines.

"It has been scientifically proven that marijuana has a number of medicinal attributes," Santos told the BBC. "There is no scientific evidence that cocaine or heroin are good for any type of active ingredient in medicine. If evidence of this arrives tomorrow then I would do the same [as with marijuana.]"

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan