Facing stiff competition, will Colombia's marijuana industry go up in smoke?

PESCA, Colombia (Reuters) - A intense scent hangs in the air at the 15-hectare La Chacra medicinal cannabis farm in central Colombia, where marijuana plants blossom in the warm closeness of its huge, heavily-secured greenhouse.

An employee of Clever Leaves company, walks through a cannabis greenhouse in Pesca, Colombia October 2, 2019. Picture taken October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

It is one of the world’s biggest crops, but the farm, run by cannabis company Clever Leaves, has only managed to export a few marijuana derivatives because of the tight regulations threatening to choke Colombia’s ganja industry.

Colombia was one of the first countries to regulate the cultivation, commercialization and export of marijuana products. But businesses that invested in cannabis complain delays in regulatory adjustments are stemming exports and discouraging potential investors.

The problem is especially serious given competition from other Latin American countries like Uruguay, they say.

Clever Leaves, which has investors from the United States and runs the farm in the central province of Boyaca as well as a sophisticated laboratory outside of the capital Bogota, sent 360 grams (12.7 ounces) of dried marijuana to Canada in February - the first legal export of cannabis from Colombia. In July, it dispatched a 6,000-bottle shipment of supplements to London.

Colombian-Canadian growers PharmaCielo exported a similar quantity of derivatives to Switzerland at around the same time, after three years in business.

“We would like if everything was faster, better, but we’re a sector that’s growing, setting up,” said Clever Leaves executive Julian Wilches. “It’s going to take time.”

Colombia, one of the world’s top producers of illegal drugs, has complicated regulations that demand legal cannabis growers get permissions from bodies ranging from agriculture and medical authorities to the anti-narcotics police and drug regulators.

Security regulations are stiff - requiring growers to have cameras, high electric fences around crops and regular contact with the police. The movement of plants to the lab is monitored by satellite and sometimes accompanied by bodyguards. Workers at the farm sign in with their fingerprints.

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Authorities take between 12 and 18 months to award licenses and growers must then wait between 3 and 6 months to get yearly permissions that establish the size of their crops and regulate the production of derivatives, like oils and creams.

“Colombia took the initiative first, but today it’s recognized for taking way longer than people expected,” said Juan Diego Alvarez, a Latin America executive at grower Khiron. “We’re in authorities’ hands, for them to finish the regulations.”

The government has defended its progress and said there will be advances in rules before the end of the month.

“Everything had to be learned, to be addressed,” Julio Aldana, the head of the country’s food and drug regulator said at a recent event.

“The only way for this not to be a bubble is for us to do it responsibly,” Aldana said, referring to the desire for the industry to expand gradually.

Medicinal cannabis could eventually bring in $6 billion a year, making it Colombia’s third-largest source of foreign exchange, the government has said.

But the export headaches are already harshing the mellow of foreign investors, who initially poured some $400 million into the industry over three years.

The risk is that businesses will look elsewhere in the region, to countries were production and export look set to prove easier, experts say.

“Before the feeling from investors was that there was enormous potential - they gave money to whoever had a license, but now they are evaluating more,” said industry analyst and consultant Alfredo Pascual. “Years have passed and they want to see results.”

Swift regulation in Uruguay, Peru, Mexico and possibly Brazil could erase Colombia’s initial head-start, businesses warn.

Uruguay recently made its the first commercial shipment of medical cannabis - 10 kg (22 lb) of dried flowers with high levels of active ingredient THC destined for patients in Australia.

In Mexico the supreme court has ordered the health ministry to issue regulations within six months on medical marijuana use, saying its failure to do so after legalization in 2017 had put rights at risk for patients, including children.

“Agro-industrial giants are nipping at our heels - I’m referring particularly to Mexico, Peru and Brazil, who know how to develop the agro-industrial sector,” said Clever’s Wilches.

“Or we get it done or the others will do it and the opportunity will have passed us by.”

Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Chris Reese