Canadian cannabis companies invest millions in Pablo Escobar's home turf in Colombia

At least seven licensed Canadian cannabis producers have set up shop in Colombia, investing more than $100 million in the conflict-hit country that has become a new frontier in the legal marijuana business.

Producing a gram of cannabis in Colombia costs 5 cents, compared to about $1.50 in Canada

Employees make cuts from mother marijuana plants to grow clones at the PharmaCielo Ltd. facility outside of Medellin, Colombia, in April. The Canadian company was the first firm to receive a Colombian licence to cultivate medical cannabis after it became legal there in 2015. (Eduardo Leal/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Near the hometown of the late Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, a growing number of Canadians are seeking their fortunes in the international drug trade.

Today, however, they're doing it legally.  

At least seven licensed Canadian cannabis producers have set up shop in Colombia, investing more than $100 million in the conflict-hit country that has become a new frontier in the legal marijuana business, according to a review of company filings.

"We understand the pain of the war on drugs. That war was here," said Bibiana Rojas, managing director of Spectrum Cannabis Colombia, a subsidiary of Canopy Growth, one of Canada's largest marijuana firms. 

The company will be investing $60 million in greenhouses, production facilities and research in Colombia in the next few years, Rojas said in a phone interview from Bogota, the capital. 

"For me, cannabis is a piece of hope," she said, as the country is "transforming something that caused so much pain in the past" when it financed illegal armed groups into "a crop that can bring health and wellness to Colombians." 

Political risks

Like other Canadian companies in the country, Canopy's affiliate will be producing marijuana oils and other medical products rather than smokeable buds, which are still prohibited. Colombia legalized medicinal cannabis production and exports in 2015, but recreational use remains illegal. 

With a tropical climate ideal for cultivating cannabis, experienced growers, comparatively low wages and a population of 50 million, Canadian firms see Colombia as an ideal place to invest. 

They're hoping to use it as a hub for cultivating and refining medical cannabis in order to eventually export across Latin America, a region with a population of 630 million.  

Police officers carry a comrade wounded during a rebel attack in rural Colombia in 2005. (Inaldo Perez/Associated Press)

Canadian cannabis investors say they are hoping to replicate the model used by mining and the energy firms, where the Toronto Stock Exchange becomes the main hub for raising capital to invest into emerging markets like Colombia. 

Some analysts, however, remain concerned about political risk amid the rush by Canadian companies to tap into the emerging market. 

"I would be very cautious," said Robert Tetrault, a portfolio manager who tracks the cannabis sector for Canaccord Genuity Wealth Management in Winnipeg. "As a shareholder, do you want to find out your facility in Pablo Escobar's home turf just got seized or there are now tariffs, added costs or corruption?"

Two Canadian government agencies that provide credit, insurance and other services to Canadian firms operating in risky markets, Export Development Canada (EDC) and the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), have not yet provided assistance for cannabis firms in Colombia, spokespeople for both agencies said. 

A history of violence 

Colombia is recovering from a long-running internal conflict involving leftist rebels, right-wing death squads and various drug trafficking cartels.

The government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest leftist rebel group, signed a peace deal in 2016 although violence involving drug traffickers and armed groups still rages in parts of the country.

Analysts don't expect Colombia's new pro-business President Ivan Duque to make big changes to medical cannabis rules. (Ivan Valencia/Associated Press)

More than 50 years of fighting left 7.4 million Colombians internally displaced, according to the UN's refugee agency. The U.S. has spent more than $10 billion US on military aid and drug eradication efforts in Colombia in the past two decades and Colombian authorities have spent tens of billions more fighting the war on drugs. 

Profit from the drug trade financed all sides of the conflict.

Former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos spearheaded the legalization effort before leaving office in August. Santos, who smoked marijuana as a student in the U.S., said legalization would take money out of the hands of traffickers and spur economic growth.  

The new government, led by conservative President Ivan Duque, has not yet spoken at length about the legal cannabis industry. But analysts don't expect the pro-business administration to dramatically shift its position on medical cannabis. 

"It would be foolish [for Duque] to turn the other way when the rest of the world is moving forward with an economic boom," said Matt Karnes, managing partner of GreenWave Advisors, a New York-based investment firm. 

Producing a gram of cannabis in Colombia costs five cents compared to about $1.50 in Canada, Karnes said, citing lower wages and better growing conditions.  

Climate, cost advantages 

"There's a reason why we don't grow coconuts and bananas in warehouses in Mississauga," said Chris Naprawa, president of Khiron Life Sciences Corp., a medicinal cannabis company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange with operations in Colombia. 

The minimum wage in Colombia is about $1.64 per hour, compared to $14 per hour in Ontario.

Khiron, which includes former Mexican president Vicente Fox on its board of directors, says it will produce more than eight tonnes of cannabis annually from an 80,000-square-foot facility outside Bogota.

Colombian police officers load packages of marijuana seized in Cali in 2012. This is the same region where PharmaCielo now has legal medical cannabis operations. (Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters)

The company is already selling cannabis creams and beauty products because "Latin American women spend a fantastic amount on cosmetics," Naprawa said.

Colombians with ailments including chronic pain, epilepsy, PTSD and sleep disorders will be able to ask doctors to prescribe cannabis. Naprawa expects Colombia's domestic market to include six million potential patients and hopes for tens of millions more in other Latin American countries and Europe who could be supplied from Khiron's base in Colombia. 

Currently, Colombians with ailments that could be medicated with cannabis are spending about $550 annually on treatment, he said. Prescription users will ingest cannabis by placing drops of cannabis oil under their tongues. 

"We will be enjoying extraordinary margins if we charge based on what people are already spending," Naprawa said. Khiron's first prescriptions will be filled in early 2019. 

Indigenous rights

Companies that receive cannabis cultivation licences in Colombia must allocate at least 10 per cent of their production to small farmers, Indigenous people and other groups who have been particularly hard-hit by the country's drug violence. 

PharmaCielo, a Canadian-financed private company that says it has the largest cannabis production capacity in Colombia, runs its main operations near Medellin. It has also set up a special satellite operation in the Valle del Cauca, a remote jungle region on Colombia's Pacific Coast, under the licence system. 

Colombian Ines Cano, reight, and her daughter Luna Valentina, visit a cannabis facility near Medellin on May 7, 2015. Valentina, 12, who was born with refractory epilepsy, started to use medical marijuana as an alternative medicine, which is the only solution to calm her seizures. (Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

Historically, it has been a "bad neighbourhood," affected by Colombia's internal violence, said PharmaCielo CEO Anthony Wile.   

"It's important for the government to see [the area] developed," said Wile, and the company is building greenhouses in the area and educating local workers on new agricultural techniques.

Indigenous people in the Cauca area have unique strains of cannabis, including red point and Colombian gold, which they have been cultivating for more than 400 years, he said.  

Investments in legal cannabis are expected to provide employment opportunities for people in the hardscrabble region who previously had few options other than cultivating coca or working for armed groups.

PharmaCielo has invested about $40 million into Colombia and employs more than 150 local people, Wile said. The company expects to earn $70 million in 2019 and believes Colombia's cannabis market could eventually be worth as much as $2 billion annually. 

"Everyone, obviously, has watched Narcos on Netflix ... [but] the realities of this industry have nothing to do with Pablo Escobar or the drug cartels of the past," said Wile. 

"But it does make for interesting cocktail party conversations," said the Halifax native who received Colombian citizenship last month by order of a special presidential decree.  

About the Author

Chris Arsenault

Senior Writer

Chris Arsenault is a senior writer who joined CBC News in Toronto after a decade as a foreign correspondent with Al Jazeera and the Thomson Reuters Foundation in South America, Europe and the Middle East.