Is Colombia Next in Line for Medical Marijuana?

medical marijuana

Colombia could become the second Latin American country to legalize medical marijuana, with hopes that a new law could be passed by next summer. However, don't expect to see the initiative in practice anytime soon after.

The bill -- put forward by Senator Juan Manuel Galán -- is currently making its way through Colombia's Congress and recently passed the first stage of debates in the Senate on November 11 with a vote of 13 in favor and two against. The proposed law would allow for a regulated medicinal cannabis industry and remove restrictions on scientific research into the drug.

To date, a number of high profile Colombian politicians have come out in support of the measure, including Senator Roy Barreras, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo, and even the president himself, Juan Manuel Santos, who stated in August: "[This is] a way of beginning to strip from the hands of criminals the role of intermediary between the patient and the substance that allows them to relieve their suffering."

There are at least four more debates to be held on this issue, according to PanAm Post, and Galán is hopeful that it will be passed by June 2015, a not unrealistic expectation based on the initial response. 

As it stands, it seems that the major obstacles to passage are members of the political right and the Catholic Church. One senator for the Democratic Center party voiced his concern that drug traffickers would be able to profit from legalizing medicinal cannabis due to the state not having the "infrastructure necessary to manage this business, which illegal traffickers have." 

The worry that the Colombian government would allow a laissez faire medical cannabis market appears a little ridiculous, to say the least. While true that Colombia may not have the existing infrastructure to implement a properly regulated framework, this doesn't mean that the country would jump head first into legalization without taking precautions. As Galán stated, should the initiative eventually pass, Congress would create a commission to help the government set up a regulatory model.

Formulating a regulated market could well take time, which means even if the bill passes next summer, we shouldn't expect to see medical marijuana in practice immediately in Colombia. One need only look to Uruguay for an example of how long this process could take. The country became the first in the world to legalize recreational cannabis in 2013, though is still working toward launching the model which is due to be rolled out early next year. Ensuring the proper controls are in place from source to market -- something which Colombia would likely emulate, particularly as it would be for medical use -- takes a great deal of time. This does not mean a government will allow criminal influence for the sake of expediency, though.

Chile became the first Latin American country to allow medical marijuana when the decision was made in September to allow a project treating 200 cancer patients to go ahead in the capital Santiago. This remains a localized project, however. Elsewhere in the region, Costa Rica is also exploring legalizing medical marijuana at a national level, with the debate in its nascent stages.