Pubdate: Fri, 10 Mar 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Nicholas Casey


CORINTO, Colombia - For years, Blanca Riveros has had the same
routine: After fixing breakfast and taking her son to school, she
heads home to a large plastic trash bag filled with marijuana.

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.

"How am I supposed to feed my family?" Ms. Riveros asked.

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

It is an unorthodox experiment by Colombia, one that underscores the
region's changing attitudes toward drugs after decades of fighting

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

In places like Mexico and Afghanistan, crop substitution programs have
typically involved coaxing farmers to switch from illicit crops to
mainstream agriculture. Poppies are replaced with wheat; coca leaf
with coffee.

Rarely has a country taken an illegal drug overseen by a criminal
organization and tried to replace it with the same crop produced
legally, sold by corporations.

"Here we have an entirely new opportunity," said Alejandro Gaviria,
Colombia's health minister, whose agency is issuing the licenses.

Mr. Gaviria said that decades of efforts by Colombia to move drug
cultivators to other crops had hit a wall: The peasants made less
money, rural development moved backward, and some farmers simply
returned to drug cultivation.

"It's been a complete failure," he said.

Now, Mr. Gaviria argued, legal drugs could become an important
economic tool for postconflict Colombia.

More than 220,000 people were killed as the rebels of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, waged 52 years of
war against paramilitary groups and the government, displacing the
state entirely in some places. In the final decades, guerrillas moved
into narcotics, financing the conflict through taxes on marijuana and
cocaine, government officials and experts say.

The logic now: What if those profits were put into the hands of the
government and peasants instead?

There is also a third actor that will profit greatly from the newly
legal business, Canada's PharmaCielo. Others, including a Colombian
company, are seeking licenses, but PharmaCielo is the most prominent
in pursuing cultivation in areas once controlled by the rebels.

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. Its 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.

"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

The company's Colombian headquarters are on rolling farmlands outside
Medellin, best known for the kingpin who ruled them for decades, Pablo

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 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, Alvaro 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.

In another part of the country, the Central Andes mark the rugged
homeland of Colombia's indigenous Nasa people. For years, the Nasa
were terrorized by the rebels, who not only taxed the marijuana trade,
but also extorted from legal businesses in towns like Toribio.

Mauricio Caso, Toribio's deputy mayor, recalled a Saturday morning in
2011 when the rebels planted a car bomb in a bus that passed a crowded
market. Five people were killed and dozens of buildings were damaged.
The engine of the bus landed in the church.

"We will never forgive what they did in Toribio," Mr. Caso

He was speaking to Mr. Cock-Correa, who 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.

"We felt the conflict, too, with our own flesh," said Mr. Cock-Correa,
changing the subject to more recent history.

"We Nasa walk slowly but safely," Mr. Caso replied. "You men from
Medellin tend to be crafty and fast."

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

"That people can even pay their taxes is because they are growing
marijuana," he said.

The prospect of moving to any other crop gives growers in this area
chills. Who would buy tomatoes when there are plenty on the market

Elmer Orozco tried planting them about eight years ago and discovered
that, unlike with marijuana, which goes to international markets, the
only market he had access to for his tomatoes was the one downtown.
Buyers offered him about 13 cents per kilogram of his tomatoes.

Mr. Orozco went back to marijuana and its high prices.

"Other agriculture isn't profitable here," he said.

But Ms. Riveros, the mother who trims marijuana plants, says 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. "It would be a miracle for us,"
she said.

But for now she still cuts cannabis for the mafia groups that come by

She pulled out a half-filled sack and started trimming, using scissors
with an index finger that had grown crooked after years of the same
work. Her son, 8, sat next to her, watching Colombian show horses on
YouTube, using a wireless router they had bought with the marijuana

At one point, prospective clients pulled up in a car to her small
adobe home. Ms. Riveros pulled out a plastic bag with trimmed cannabis.

"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.
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MAP posted-by: Matt