Colombia: Setting Benchmarks For Cannabis Regulations

By Maria McIntyre, Cannabis Strategic Operations Business Manager at bioMérieux, Inc.
Interviewing: Juan Pablo Soler, Cannabis Consultant

Cannabis cultivation has been legal in Colombia since 2016, but last year saw a major step forward for the Colombian cannabis industry: in July, regulations were loosened to allow the export of dry cannabis flowers. Due to the policy change, Colombia is positioning itself to compete in the worldwide medicinal cannabis market. We spoke to Juan Pablo Soler, a technical and scientific expert, for insight on the current state of cannabis in Colombia.

What has been your role in the cannabis industry in Colombia?
Currently my role in the industry has been to support its proper development from a technical, scientific, and management point of view. I have been part of technical working groups with government entities such as Invima and Icontec, as well as associations such as Asocolcanna, helping to build technical and legal frameworks.

As a Pharmaceutical Chemist, I have tried to transfer knowledge from the pharmacy to the cannabis industry. Specifically, everything related to laboratory quality control workflows, as well as extraction techniques to obtain cannabinoids.

Lately, I work as a consultant with other companies that want to achieve high quality standards and be certified in EUGMP, GACP, and other standards related to cannabis. Recently, I have led several seminars to first semester students in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Antioquia and CES University related to generalities of cannabis. Specifically, my role will be to continue to support the growth of the industry in the country, and to allow cannabis to be seen from a more scientific and medical point of view through education and training.

What is the current state of the cannabis industry in Colombia?
Currently, Colombia has a robust legal framework related to cannabis. Decree 811 recently was enacted, which enables the export of dried flower and industrial and food uses of non-psychoactive derivatives. Colombia also has a wide range of products: seeds, raw extracts, distillates, isolates, and finished products such as phytotherapeutics, magisterial formulas, and cosmetics. Colombia is positioned more and more strongly at a global level and is considered as a benchmark from a regulatory point of view.

Can you explain how cannabis quality and safety has developed in Colombia over the last several years?

From a quality and safety point of view, the industry continues to evolve. Increasing market needs have led to strict controls in manufacturing processes. Regulatory compliance under GMP standards means that many tests and controls must be carried out on all related products in the value chain. The ongoing technological transfer from pharmaceuticals to the cannabis industry has made the market increasingly demanding in terms of high-quality products.

What is the biggest challenge in the Colombian cannabis industry?

I think one of the biggest challenges has been positioning Colombia as a world benchmark, because training for new professionals, acquisition of extraction technologies, and modern quality controls are desperately needed. High costs often make it difficult to obtain the needed equipment.

I consider the greatest barriers to be education and promotion of the complexity and rigor required in the handling of cannabis. It needs to be seen as an industry based on education that produces products with high quality standards. We also need to be able to regulate its use for adults other than medical use.

What trends do you anticipate in the coming years?
I believe that another commercial panorama has opened up for Colombia in the last few months, making new product development imminent, as well as the development of scientific research to validate new drugs.

The new regulations aimed at safe consumption and the evolution of the industry over the years have led us to develop new products and commercial relationships.

Why is the cannabis industry growing?
The globalization and development of new technologies aimed at obtaining different types of oils and by-products, in addition to legalization in many countries and the acceptance of their therapeutic properties, have made cannabis grow at an incredible rate.

How do you see the development of new scientific research expanding? How will science be part of the industry?
Legalization has brought with it the investigation of cannabinoids and their potential use in pharmaceuticals, medicine, and biotechnology. However, it is still necessary to carry out more clinical research applied to the safe use and efficacy of cannabinoids in general.

Science has always been part of the evolution of the industry. Without scientific findings, the industry could not evolve. They are directly proportional: one is linked to the other.Science and its development are key for the industry to grow. Scientific studies are the greatest evidence supporting the creation of an environment of trust and safety regarding the use of cannabinoids. The use of innovative technologies such as big data and AI could accelerate new research related to the bioavailability of cannabinoids.

What are the immediate needs for safety and quality testing of cannabis in Colombia?
Currently one of the most specific needs is to guarantee the safety and stability of all products and related raw materials in the value chain to ensure they are free of contamination. This requires fast and accurate tests. We also need to become consistent throughout the entire cannabis production chain. 

What does the long-term approach for medicinal cannabis and industrial hemp testing look like?  How does this differ from high-THC/ adult-use cannabis?

We currently have validated tests based on international standards, however, we continue to adapt new tests for everything related to quality control. 

Within these tests I consider the speed and efficiency of the results as critical, in order to quickly release safe products. It is key to find rapid microbiological tests for the flower after harvesting and drying, and of course to test the final product.

How does legalization in Colombia help pave the way for federal legalization in the US or other global markets?

The legalization of cannabis in Colombia shows that a robust and unified regulatory framework helps the industry grow. I believe that the work that has been properly shared between all the participants in the chain including companies, universities, and states, which makes it possible to establish guidelines for all. The unification and normalization of all the working parts is the key to speaking the same language.

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