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After Decades Fighting Drugs, Colombia Joins Marijuana Trade

In places like Mexico and Afghanistan, crop substitution schemes have typically involved coaxing farmers to switch from illicit crops to mainstream agriculture. Poppies are replaced with wheat; coca leaf with coffee.

Rarely has a country taken an illegal drug overseen by a criminal organization and tried to replace it with the same crop produced legally, sold by corporations.

“Here we have an entirely new opportunity,” said Alejandro Gaviria, Colombia’s health minister, whose agency is issuing the licenses.

Mr. Gaviria said that decades of efforts by Colombia to move drug cultivators to other crops had hit a wall: The peasants made less money, rural development moved backward, and some farmers simply returned to drug cultivation.

“It’s been a complete failure,” he said.

Now, Mr. Gaviria argued, legal drugs could become an important economic tool for postconflict Colombia.

More than 220,000 people were killed as the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, waged 52 years of war against paramilitary groups and the government, displacing the state entirely in some places. In the final decades, guerrillas moved into narcotics, financing the conflict through taxes on marijuana and cocaine, government officials and experts say.

The logic now: What if those profits were put into the hands of the government and peasants instead?

There is also a third actor that will profit greatly from the newly legal business, Canada’s PharmaCielo. Others, including a Colombian company, are seeking licenses, but PharmaCielo is the most prominent in pursuing cultivation in areas once controlled by the rebels.

Formed in 2014 as the new law was taking shape, PharmaCielo is already testing strains of cannabis more potent than those the rebels ever controlled. Its directors include former executives of Philip Morris and Bayer. The company sees a future in which the legal drug industry is controlled by the same kind of multinational corporations that the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement aimed to drive from the country.

Here in Corinto, the company has already signed a deal with a workers’ cooperative to provide labor, with plans to eventually move in with their own greenhouses, plants and fertilizer.

“The peasants were forced to produce these plants,” says Federico Cock-Correa, who heads the Colombian subsidiary of PharmaCielo and promises to pay his growers far more than what they earned during the war.

The company’s Colombian headquarters are on rolling farmlands outside Medellín, an area best known for the kingpin who ruled them for decades, Pablo Escobar.

Mr. Cock-Correa, however, is new to the drug business, coming to cannabis after a long career exporting cut chrysanthemums, which he says grow in a similar way as marijuana, to the United States.

Mr. Cock-Correa swung open a padlocked door to his facility and showed off a kind of industrial future for Colombian drugs. Vast greenhouses. Organic fertilizers. A test area of 19 marijuana plants, barely four months old, some of which had grown taller than him.

Source: NYT > World

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