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Colombian Cannabis: Small Farmers Did Better Under FARC

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Mom-and-pop marijuana growers in Colombia are now getting less than half the price that “Marxist-Leninist guerillas” paid for their buds, it was revealed almost incidentally in a March 9 New York Times story by Nicholas Casey. The piece was accompanied by a photo of Blanca Riveros trimming her flowers in a comfortable-looking stucco cottage. Excerpts follow:

She trims the plants and gets them ready for Colombian drug traffickers. After school, her son helps cut more.

The business was long overseen by the country’s largest rebel group, which dominated this region, taxed its drugs and became internationally notorious for trafficking in billions of dollars in illicit substances. But when the government signed a peace deal with the fighters last year, the state swept in and reclaimed this remote mountain village, threatening to end the trade…

She now has an unlikely option: growing marijuana with the government’s blessing instead.

A Canadian company called PharmaCielo, with the government’s approval, is working to produce the drug legally in Colombia and is looking to hire…

US-funded crop substitution efforts have been “a complete failure,” according to Colombia’s Health Minister Alejandro. Casey wrties:

Colombia has received billions of dollars in American aid to eradicate the drug trade. But in the coming weeks, the government says, it will begin processing licenses for a small number of companies, including PharmaCielo, under a 2015 law that allows the cultivation of medical marijuana…

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.

So the company claims and Casey of the Times states as fact. But if the FARC guerillas —the locals—had Colombian landrace strains, they had potent genetics that US cannabis afficionados bemoan the loss of.

PharmaCielo’s 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 its own greenhouses, plants and fertilizer.

Casey thinks it plausible that norteamericano cigarette-company and drug-company execs are more devoted to the well-being of Colombian campesinos and workers than the local guerillas. He relays their propaganda:

“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.

What did PharmaCielo promise to who? Did the growers get it in writing? Or did Cock-Correa just “promise” Casey of the Times?

The company’s Colombian headquarters are on rolling farmlands outside Medellín, 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 claims to be “new to the drug business,”  and it may be true —but how does Casey know? And how many farmers in Half Moon Bay were put out of business by well-connected Colombian businessmen like Cock-Correa exporting cut flowers that the US government subsidized them to grow (instead of cocaine, theoretically)? But back to our story, as Casey checks out a PharmaCielo greenhouse:

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.

For PharmaCielo, the first challenge was lobbying to change the laws in Colombia, the recipient of $10 billion in American aid over the past two decades to fight the drug trade. The Colombian government will continue its eradication efforts for crops like coca leaf, which is used to make cocaine, and for marijuana grown in violation of the new law.

But Mr. Cock-Correa, who counts the former president, Álvaro Uribe, among his neighbors, said government officials were fascinated by the idea of using legal, medical cannabis as a tool for development once the rebels were out of the picture. The 2015 law allows medical marijuana cultivation for the domestic market and the export of medical marijuana products like oils and creams.

Casey accompanies Cock-Correa on a visit to the deputy mayor of a town called Toribio, Mauricio Caso. He writes that the businessman

…had traveled to the town to make his medical marijuana pitch, promising jobs and development. But while Mr. Caso was pleased to have the rebels gone, he seemed skeptical of Mr. Cock-Correa, too.

“What’s important here is we don’t go 500 years backward to the times where indigenous people were working for outsiders and marginalized,” Mr. Caso said…

Not all local leaders were as cool to PharmaCielo. Edward García, the mayor of Corinto, estimates that two-thirds of his town of 32,000 people depend on cannabis for a living.

The Times story ends with Casey learning from Blanca Riveros that

the profits of the illegal trade have fallen since the FARC stood down, by more than half. Experts say the peacetime market has been flooded with cannabis that can move out of rebel territory more easily now that the rebels do not control it. Her hopes now rest with PharmaCielo…

Translation: The FARC guerillas were paying the small growers more than twice what Riveros is getting now for her manicured buds. She can only hope the corporados won’t pay even less.

“It will be much more technical with the company,” she said, referring to PharmaCielo.

It was getting to be evening. Ms. Riveros strolled through a field of her own plants, then wandered over to an oven in a shed where long cannabis branches were hanging to dry from the ceiling.

As the sun set, the growers in the village were beginning to turn on the lights above their plants, plot by plot. Before long, the entire hillside seemed lit up. The other mountains were, too. The lights of the high-rises of Cali shimmered in the far distance.

“Isn’t it all just beautiful?” Ms. Riveros asked.

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

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