In late June, Colombia elected Gustavo Petro as its first ever left-wing president, a major shift for this nation of 55 million people. On August 7, outgoing President Ivan Duque will give way to a leader who has, among other things, pledged to replace new oil exploration and extraction projects with agro-industry and break with the nation’s hard-line drug policy. Petro will have to negotiate with other parties, including moderates, but his election could bring many changes, large and small.
Among them: the possibility of a major boost for the cannabis industry, and the end of prohibition. For years, Petro — an economist and former member of Congress, mayor of Bogotá, and guerilla fighter — has voiced his support for cannabis legalization.
Colombia has emerged as a global cannabis player due largely to optimal growing conditions and relatively inexpensive labor and land; already, cannabis companies from Canada to Germany have invested in Colombia’s medical cannabis industry with an eye toward export.
“I think it is stupid to keep marijuana underground,” Petro told Semana magazine in March 2021. “If Colombia does not step up to the plate it will lose the business. After so many deaths, so much imprisonment, so much venom, so much demonization that Colombian society has suffered because of this issue, it turns out that it is other countries that are going to keep the billions of dollars from this business.”
Petro has advocated to end the U.S.-led war on drugs in Colombia and to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, the nation´s main export. To help replace oil revenues, he has proposed the development of the cannabis industry.
He has also suggested that legal cannabis could be a substitute for illegal coca crops. Even after the 2016 peace process between FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, after the initials in Spanish) guerrillas and the government, Colombia retains a prominent role in illicit coca cultivation and production, accounting for 61 percent of the global total, according to the 2022 World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
“Marijuana can replace coca crops successfully and is a real possibility for agro-industry that Colombia should take advantage of,” Petro said in June 2021.
The incoming president’s stance on drugs radically differs from that of his predecessor, President Duque, who has half-heartedly endorsed cannabis regulations over the course of his four years in office.
Although he supported cannabis in general, saying it could be a source of much needed tax revenue and jobs for Colombians, it was not until his third year in office that he allowed for dried flower exports from the country. And Duque has maintained that he is not willing to lift prohibition completely. “We’re not using cannabis for recreational purposes. We’re using it for medical purposes,” Duque told The Associated Press in 2021.
The prospect of a booming industry in Colombia has its origins in a robust law passed under President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 meant to facilitate the cultivation, manufacture, and export of cannabis-based products for medical use.
Some experts believe that legalizing cannabis would create wealth and generate jobs for the country, where 39% of the population lives under the poverty line, according to the country´s statistics office, DANE. By 2030, Colombian exports of medical cannabis could generate 44,000 jobs and bring more than US $1.7 billion, according to projections by ProColombia, the government’s business promotion agency. More optimistic estimates from ProColombia show it could bring more than US $2.5 billion, even surpassing coffee exports, the country’s leading non-mining-energy export.
For all the major reforms he has proposed, including tax and healthcare reforms, Petro will need to gain support from more centrist parties for a majority coalition. But with a framework in place for a robust cannabis trade and the support of a majority of newly-elected lawmakers, it looks like Petro might be able to achieve what had seemed impossible— removing all prohibitions on cannabis in a conservative country where Congress had blocked several attempts to legalize it.