Legal cannabis cultivation can bolster Latin America’s economic development. Imagine how that would have sounded even five years ago. With the rise of medical and legal recreational cannabis use worldwide, Latin America and the Caribbean have become targets for international investors looking to develop plantations for export and manufacturing.
For a significant portion of the 80s-2000s, illegal drug trade caused instability, violence, and uncertainty in several countries, including Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico. Even though much has changed in places like Colombia, shows like Narcos exacerbate stereotypes about drug violence in the region, souring Latin America’s reputation in the eyes of investors worldwide.
Since 2013, however, the attitude toward drugs across the region has evolved. Uruguay led a movement that resulted in widespread decriminalization of cannabis, and in some places, the legalization of the drug for medical or recreational use. Colombia, arguably one of the countries that has suffered the most at the hands of drug-related violence, began to regulate legalized cannabis for export in 2017, becoming one of the region’s leaders in legal production.
As the US and Canada face the challenges of implementing cannabis legalization, North American companies increasingly turn to Latin America as the ideal development site for new products. Despite potential ethical controversies, cannabis production could come to generate an additional $12.7B for the region by 2028.
So why are all these companies looking South?
- Production costs in Latin America are as much as 80% lower than in Canada or the US.
- Latin America represents a potential market of 650M consumers, with 4.6M becoming medical marijuana patients by 2028.
- The region already has over 40 licensed producers and continues to add more at a rapid rate.
Not all cannabis companies are producers or dispensaries, though. While a significant portion of this investment is going to develop cannabis production in key markets like Mexico and Chile, it is also fueling the beginnings of a cannabis tech revolution in the region.
Here is an overview of the opportunities in marijuana and cannabis tech across Latin America.
Argentina legalized medical marijuana in 2017 but only recently released the legal regulations on the substance in March 2019. Industry regulations, including authorization for cultivation, import, and distribution of cannabis, fall under the management of the National Seed Institute (INASE) within the Ministry of Agriculture.
All cannabis producers must have a technical manager who is in direct contact with INASE to communicate the amount of cannabis the company produces. In response to the announcement, US-based Players Network Inc partnered with an Argentine state-owned company, Cannava, for approval to import seeds into Jujuy, Argentina and to create a tax-free zone for cannabis oils, distillates, and isolates. Cannava, the only entity authorized to cultivate and distribute cannabis products in Argentina, also partnered with Colombia-based Blueberries Medical Corp. to manage a 3.2M hectare plot in Jujuy for local and export production.
Argentine investor, Quiena Inversiones, is known for investing in the US medical marijuana market since it was founded in 2015. While still in the early stages, Argentina’s cannabis market has also led to the development of a personal cannabis oil extractor, called Nectar, by students at the University of Buenos Aires.
Brazil passed a law allowing the production of medical marijuana for licensed patients in 2018. Previously, Brazil offered individual medical marijuana import grants on a case-by-case basis. Recreational cannabis use is still illegal; however, it has been decriminalized since 2006.
Brazil currently lags behind the rest of the region in cannabis awareness, production, and regulation, dragging prices for legal marijuana down across Latin America. As the region’s economic powerhouse, cannabis legalization in Brazil could have dramatic effects on the overall growth of the industry.
Currently, development efforts focus in the medicinal sector, with organizations like Centro de Excelencia Cannabinoide working to educate the market on the benefits of medical marijuana. Dr. Cannabis is a local startup working to help patients and doctors manage legal prescriptions for medical marijuana. Brazil still represents a massive, mostly untapped investment opportunity for cannabis production and consumption in Latin America.
Chile was one of the first countries in the region to legalize medical marijuana in 2015, allowing people to receive prescriptions and even to grow up to three plants at home. The Chilean government also decriminalized recreational cannabis use; Chile now leads the region in cannabis consumption per capita. The first legal medical cannabis production in Latin America was at the Daya Foundation in 2014 in Chile.
Global cannabis producers like Global Cannabis Applications Corp (GCAP), Khiron, AusCann, and Tilray all have active distribution channels in Chile through local partnerships. GCAP partnered with Chilean distributor, Grassroots SpA, to reach over 3000 clients in Chile, marking the company’s first expansion into the Spanish-speaking market. Khiron Life Sciences, one of the world’s largest medical marijuana manufacturers, signed its second Latin American MOU with Dayacann in Chile in January 2019.
Cannabis growth for personal use is very common in Chile, with “grow” stores widely available across major cities. In 2018, a startup called Cloudponics participated in Start-Up Chile with a device that uses smartphones to automate and manage at-home marijuana cultivation. They also raised a round of crowdfunding investment on Chile’s version of Kickstarter, Broota. Relaxeed, a management and control tool for cannabis self-cultivation for medical cannabis users founded by Mariel Salfatte, also participated in the S Factory in 2018, signaling a rising interest in cannabis tech in Chile.
Colombia is arguably leading cannabis licensing and exports for the Latin American region, accounting for 44% of the medical marijuana market. The Colombian government began to regulate medical marijuana in 2017, pushing Colombia to become a global hub for production for the burgeoning Canadian, US, and European markets.
Canadian companies are flocking to Colombia where the government is handing out growing licenses rapidly. As of March 2019, the government has issued over 300 licenses, which are being scooped up by global giants like PharmaCielo and Khiron Life Sciences who are pouring millions into development, marketing, and lobbying in Colombia.
This massive growth market is attracting foreign and local entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of the now-legal, and highly lucrative, cash crop. Oscar Libreros and Hussein Shadanlou moved from Boston to Colombia to found LifeLine Pharma, a medical cannabis research startup outside of Cali. By collaborating with the Center for Tropical Agriculture, they are working to scale agricultural yields of several crops, including cannabis.
Colombian company, Clever Leaves, also received permission recently to export medical-grade cannabis to Canada. While Canada is currently leading many Colombian cannabis efforts, the size of the market still offers significant potential for tech startups.
Jamaica was the first country to legalize marijuana for religious use by the Rastafarians. Canadian producer Aphria Inc. owns several plantations across three countries in Latin America, including Jamaica, through an acquisition of LATAM Holdings Inc. The company now owns a Tier 3 production license in Jamaica, allowing them to cultivate up to five acres of marijuana.
Jamaica leads cannabis development in the Caribbean, recently overseeing the signing of an MOU between the University of Technology, Jamaica, and international nutraceutical company, Timeless Herbal Care, to research medicinal marijuana. A local female-founded startup, Jacana, led by the founder of Lulu, Alexandra Chong, also recently raised a $20M investment to become Jamaica’s first legal medical marijuana exporter, creating innovative products for pain management.
Puerto Rico also has a nascent cannabis market, receiving investment from US medical marijuana dispensary, Future Farm, in March 2019. Puerto Rico now has over 100 licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and 56,000 patients using cannabinoids to treat pain and other medical issues.
Along with Colombia, Mexico is one of the region’s leaders in cannabis development. Former President Vicente Fox is a board member of Khiron Life Sciences, a Vancouver-based cannabis company that is already exporting products to Colombia. He suggests that there is a secure future for cannabis investment in Mexico and across the region.
In 2009, Mexico decriminalized the possession of marijuana for personal use (<5 g) and made medical marijuana legal in 2017. While recreational use remains illegal, the Supreme Court ruled five times that prohibition is unconstitutional and the government is currently considering overturning full prohibition to be able to regulate recreational use. However, medical marijuana is still not regulated by the Mexican government, despite being legal, so most medical CBD supplies are imported.
While cannabis exportation is still not regulated in Mexico, Vicente Fox is long on market opportunities, telling Forbes: “People will almost always prioritize medicine, no matter how bad the economy gets.” CannaOne, a Vancouver-based cannabis business solution, recently announced a partnership with Manna Health in Mexico City to create Mexico’s first cannabis marketplace. If Mexico legalizes marijuana for recreational use, it would become the largest legal cannabis market in the world, so cannabis tech entrepreneurs are watching the government cloasely for signs of change.
In February 2019, Peru passed a law regulating the production and distribution of medical-grade cannabis across the country. This legislation positions Peru as a leader in the region, providing access to low-cost medical solutions for Peruvians and patients abroad. While medicinal marijuana is legal in Peru (since 2017), this new legislation manages the market.
To develop the legal frameworks, Peru is working with Canadian corporation Plena Global Holdings and local agribusinesses to ensure the market benefits the local economy. This work also guarantees that Peru meets international standards for medical marijuana exportation.
In 2018, Khiron received permission to sell certain products within the Peruvian market. Canopy Growth, the world’s largest cannabis distributor, also started selling in the Peruvian market at the beginning of 2019. Local actors have yet to gain international attention, but new regulations will likely open up the market to Peruvian entrepreneurs looking to export globally.
Uruguay was the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use. Up to 9% of its 3.4M population are marijuana users. However, investment in cannabis production for export has been slower than expected, despite Uruguay’s relatively free trade. The national regulating body, Ircca, has approved US$57M in cannabis projects since 2015 and is considering another $40M in investment potential.
Large corporations operating in Uruguay are continually lobbying for larger plantation licenses and further investment to grow their production. Silverpeak Life Sciences Uruguay Inc, one of the largest distributors (connected to Canada), will raise $35M this year to expand in 2020. If US and Canadian manufacturers start to produce in Uruguay; however, the export value could reach $1B within the next few years, according to Bloomberg.
Local sales are slow due to strong regulations by the government on production. Regardless, several local companies are gaining traction by integrating cannabis into the local culture and economy, such as through Abuelita-brand yerba mate infused with CBD. Local medicinal cannabis dealer, CannaPur, also made headlines by building a factory in an area with high unemployment to support the local economy. Uruguay has all the pieces to become a flourishing cannabis market, despite its small population.
Opportunities in the Latin American Cannabis Industry
Governments across Latin America are relatively progressive and accepting of medical (and even recreational) marijuana use across the region. As Canada and the US import more cannabis, Latin America is poised to become a hub for production and innovation. However, these countries will have to comply with international regulations to fit into a global supply chain for marijuana production and export, especially for medical-grade cannabis.
Jessica Steinberg, Founder of The Global C cannabis consultancy, commented, “the Latin American market is trying to develop the infrastructure to become the supply hub for the European and North American markets. However, achieving the standardized practices required by the supply chain requires certifications and a lot of capital. For Latin America to shift to the legal cannabis market, they will need to find the capital to comply with international standards.”
While the outlook on the Latin American legal cannabis market is positive, the region still has to invest in stronger infrastructure and legislation to turn marijuana into a regional economic driver.