Colombia Chamber of Representatives Passes Cannabis Legalization Bill

On May 8, the Colombian Chamber of Representatives passed a cannabis legalization bill. In the sixth of eight discussions, the bill was passed with a 98-57 vote. In Colombia, legislative acts require eight debates, and in the most recent discussion, it needed 95 votes to move forward.

Rep. Juan Carlos Losada Vargas, who is also the bill’s sponsor, shared the news on Twitter on May 9. “#HISTÓRICO Approved with 98 votes our project of #CannabisDeUsoAdulto in 6th debate. Today @CamaraColombia It shows that we are a country that wants to change the failed prohibitionist drug policy to one based on prevention and public health,” Vargas wrote on Twitter.

The bill would create a regulatory framework for legal cannabis both for adults as well as for scientific purposes. “The purpose of this Draft Legislative Act is to allow the regularization of the use of cannabis by adults, as well as the unification of the current regulations regarding the use of cannabis for scientific use, as long as the established requirements are met,” a translated excerpt of the bill text states. “The foregoing in order to recognize and guarantee the fundamental rights to equality and the free development of personality, unify the constitutional, legal and jurisprudential references on the matter and propose a different strategy to combat illegal cannabis trafficking, as a tactic to reduce violence in the country.”

The bill also supports the creation of public education campaigns and substance abuse programs.

Vargas published op-ed pieces in late March and April where he discussed the history of cannabis efforts in Colombia and how proper regulation will save lives. “Five years ago, when we first brought the cannabis discussion to Congress, we were completely certain that, in a legislative body with conservative majorities, it was virtually impossible to pass a bill of this nature; however, simultaneously with an assured defeat, we always had the conviction that one day—much sooner rather than later—our project was going to go ahead,” Vargas wrote in March. “Well, it looks like that day has come.”

In April, the Chamber of Representatives had discussed cannabis on five occasions. “Passing five debates shows that this Congress, supported by the will of millions of Colombians who went to the polls, demonstrates that it is ready to take a step towards a new drug policy that abandons the failed paradigm of prohibition and opens the field for it to a policy guided by the guidelines of public health, the prevention of consumption and the guarantee of citizens’ rights,” Vargas wrote in April. “We are very little away from starting to write a new history in the fight against drugs, at this point it is a matter of political will. Every vote is decisive.”

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration, for the last two discussions. If passed, it would be sent to Colombian President Gustavo Petro. 

In the past, Petro has confirmed support and interest in ending the War on Drugs. Last year he explained how he will strive to allow Colombian people to live in peace. In November, Petro met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss “geopolitical, commercial, cultural and development cooperation.” In a joint statement, they announced their goal for change. “Recognizing the failure of the fight against drugs and the vulnerability of our peoples in the face of this problem, Mexico and Colombia will convene an International Conference of Latin American leaders with the objective of redesigning and rethinking drug policy,” both presidents said in their statement.

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Police in Peru Seize $20M of Coke Headed for Turkey

Law enforcement authorities in Peru said this week that they seized more than two tons of cocaine that was bound for Turkey. 

Reuters reports that the “drug bust happened Friday at a warehouse at Peru’s biggest port, El Callao, just outside the capital Lima.”

“This is the first incident that we know of (in which the cargo was in) Peruvian ports and its final destination was Turkey. Usually we are aware of ports in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and France,” said El Callao’s police chief, Colonel Luis Angel Bolanos, as quoted by Reuters.

According to Reuters, police “displayed the cocaine, which had been fixed to rubber sheets to appear as hundreds of ceramic tiles packed in wooden boxes inside a shipping container” during a press conference on Monday.

The news service reported that “Bolanos said the seized cocaine was valued at ‘at least $20 million.’”

“The Andean nation seized a record 86.4 tonnes of drugs and illicit substances last year, 28 tonnes of which were cocaine hydrochloride, police data shows,” according to Reuters. “Peru and nearby Colombia are among the top global producers of cocaine and of the coca leaf it is made of, according to the United Nations. Production in Peru has been mostly growing along the border with Brazil in the Ucayali region, where coca leaf crops have almost sextupled in size in two years to 10,229 hectares (25,276 acres) in 2021, according to Peruvian authorities.”

Last year, the White House released a report on cocaine production in South America, including Peru. 

“The United States recognizes the Government of Peru’s commitment to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production. Estimated coca cultivation and cocaine production in Peru decreased but remained high at 84,400 hectares and 785 metric tons, respectively. The current level of coca cultivation highlights the importance of returning to pre-pandemic levels of eradication, while investing in a holistic approach that seeks to bring safety, security, and opportunity to rural Peruvians,” the White House said.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to continuing close cooperation with our partners in South America to address our shared challenge of drug production, trafficking and use,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “As part of President Biden’s National Drug Control Strategy, we are pursuing policies that expand access to the continuum of care for substance use, go after drug traffickers and their profits, and also address the root causes of participation in the illicit economy in coca-growing areas, such as poverty, insecurity, and the lack of access to services.”

Turkey, meanwhile, “has become a global trafficking hub for South American cocaine, fuelling rising demand for the drug in Eastern Europe and the Persian Gulf, according to organised crime experts,” Vice reported last year

“A two-part analysis by InSight Crime, an investigative organisation, published today and last week reveals that gangs in Turkey, a country notorious for its major role in heroin trafficking between Afghanistan to Europe, now have major interests in the cocaine trade,” according to Vice, which said that Turkey’s increased involvement in the trade came “when South American cocaine producers needed a new route eastwards for their product, as so much of it was being seized going into western Europe.”

“Turkish gangs were attracted to the cocaine business due to their maritime expertise, diminishing profits from heroin due falling wholesale prices, a growing demand for cocaine in badly supplied parts of eastern Europe and the Middle East, and closer links between Turkish criminals – including the far-right Grey Wolves – and cartels in Latin America,” Vice reported. “As a result, Turkish traffickers have become key players supplying South American cocaine to emerging markets in Russia, the Balkans and a new desert cocaine route through northern Iraq into the Persian Gulf, according to the research.”

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Court Ruling Could Lead to Cannabis Planting in Brazil

According to Reuters, the Superior Court of Justice (STJ), which serves as the top appeals court in Brazil for non-constitutional matters, “has agreed to rule on whether companies and farmers can plant cannabis in the country, which could open the door to legal cultivation for medicinal and industrial purposes after legislative efforts stalled in recent years.” 

The case was brought by a biotech company called DNA Solucoes em Biotecnologia, which is “arguing for the right to import seeds and plant cannabis with higher levels of cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and less tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive component in the plant,” according to Reuters. 

Reuters reported that the decision from the appeals court “was made public on March 14 and established its jurisdiction for a nationwide precedent regarding the import of seeds and planting of cannabis.”

And that decision has carried immediate implications.

“Now, all pending cases regarding permission to plant cannabis in the country will be frozen until the STJ makes a final and biding decision,” according to the outlet. “Brazil allows the sale and production of cannabis products, but companies must import the key ingredients. The court’s final ruling on cannabis, expected within the next year, could make it a trailblazer on a topic spurned by many in Brazil’s conservative-leaning Congress, like the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling paving the way for same-sex marriage.”

Last summer, the Superior Court of Justice ruled that patients in Brazil can grow their own cannabis for medical treatment.

In that decision, the five-judge panel ruled in favor of three patients who had brought the case, authorizing them “to grow cannabis for medical treatment, a decision that is likely to be applied nationwide in similar cases,” the Associated Press reported at the time.

The unanimous decision by the court allowed the “three patients [to] grow cannabis and extract its oil for use in pain relief.”

“The discourse against this possibility is moralistic. It often has a religious nature, based on dogmas, on false truths, stigmas,” Judge Rogério Schietti said in the ruling. “Let us stop this prejudice, this moralism that delays the development of this issue at the legislative, and many times clouds the minds of Brazilian judges.”

Medical cannabis is legal in Brazil, though limited. Recreational marijuana use is prohibited. 

Marijuana legalization did not figure prominently in Brazil’s presidential election last year, with candidates generally steering clear of the issue. 

The winner of that election, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, “does not seem to have a very concrete plan regarding cannabis specifically,” according to Benzinga, which noted that it “remains to be seen if said plan will respond to the claims of the cannabis community; but if we go by his broader drug policy plan, it’s safe to assume it will be more humane than his predecessor’s.”

Reuters has more background on the country’s weed policy:

“Brazil has banned growing Cannabis sativa L, the plant that makes hemp and marijuana. Researchers and cannabis firms have argued that Brazil’s tropical climate is ideally suited to make it a leading global supplier.”

The decision this month by the Superior Court of Justice to rule on the case suggests that the panel is prepared to establish a precedent on the issue. 

Reuters cited the Brazilian lawyer Victor Miranda, who “said the STJ’s decision to set precedent on the matter was consistent with Brazilian jurisprudence and gave no clear sign of how it would ultimately rule on the merits of the case.”

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The Anthropologist Who Became a Shaman Cult Leader

Browsing through an antique bookstore in Quito, I stumbled on a book called Shabono: A Visit to a Remote and Magical World in the South American Rain Forest, written by an anthropologist named Florinda Donner. Published in 1982, I expected it to be like most academic texts: interesting but long-winded and dusty. Instead, I got a gripping adventure that puts even Indiana Jones to shame. 

The book opens with Donner, a German immigrant studying anthropology in California, feeling hopeless. She’s spent weeks on the border between Venezuela and Brazil shadowing Indigenous healers who refuse to reveal the secrets of their trade. Preparing to return to the U.S. empty-handed, she befriends a kind but crazy old woman who wants to introduce her to her village, located deep inside the rainforest. The woman dies on the journey, and when Donner arrives at the village, she joins a ceremony where she drinks banana soup seasoned with the woman’s ashes. 

And that’s just the first couple chapters. Later, Donner experiences existential hallucinations after snuffing epená, a tryptamine derivative, and narrowly avoids getting kidnapped by another tribe. 

The story of Shabono is so compelling I found it hard to believe it was true, which – it turns out – it wasn’t. While the book was praised for its writing, it was torn apart for lack of academic rigor. Some anthropologists believe Donner made everything up, claiming she never left the U.S. and plagiarized the account of a Brazilian woman who had once been held captive in the same region of the Amazon. 

As shocked as I was to learn all this, the rabbit hole proved to go much, much deeper. 

It’s hard to separate the story of Florinda Donner from that of Carlos Castenada. Castenada, like Donner, was a California-based anthropologist accused of fabricating his studies on Indigenous healing. He claims to have met Don Juan Matus, the Yaqui sorcerer at the center of his bestselling 1968 book The Teachings of Don Juan, whilst waiting for a Greyhound bus in Arizona. Critics questioned Don Juan’s existence, and Castenada, who didn’t like being questioned, offered no help in trying to locate him. 

Although The Teachings was shunned in academic circles, it made a huge impact on the general population. Castenada’s recollections of inhaling the dust of psilocybin mushrooms and turning into a crow after smoking devil’s weed were required reading for anyone involved in the sex and drugs culture of the late 60s.  

Though he might have been a lousy anthropologist, Castenada was a masterful storyteller who knew how to use his gift to bewitch those around him. Following the publication of his third Don Juan book, Castenada – by then a multimillionaire – purchased a two-story house in Los Angeles’ Westwood Village. This is where his personal writerly following would flourish into what some would now consider to have been a full-blown cult. 

One of Castenada’s followers was Gloria Garvin, who sought him out after reading The Teachings under the influence of pumpkin pie laced with hashish. 

“You have always been like a bird, like a little bird in a cage,” Garvin recalled Castenada telling her during their initial meeting. “You are wanting to fly, you’re ready, the door is open—but you’re just sitting there. I want to take you with me. I’ll help you soar. Nothing could stop you if you come with me.” Staying in touch, Castenada urged her to study anthropology at UCLA, his alma mater. 

Also from UCLA Castenada recruited Florinda Donner, whom he helped write Shabono and The Witch’s Dream, among other books. 

Castenada referred to his favorite followers as his “witches.” The witches lived with him at the Westwood compound and wore identical, short haircuts. They also claimed to have met the semi-fictional Don Juan. Witches recruited other witches at Castenada’s L. Ron Hubbard-inspired lectures and seminars on shamanism and human transcendence – preferably “women with a combination of brains and beauty and vulnerability,” according to ex-followers interviewed by Salon

To become a real witch, they say, you had to sleep Castenada, who presented himself as celibate in public.

Testimony maintains Castenada’s following had all the characteristics of a cult. Followers were pressured into cutting off contact with their friends and family. Only Donner, who was considered Castenada’s intellectual and spiritual equal, remained in touch with her parents, albeit sporadically. After being separated from their loved ones, Castenada encouraged them to quit their jobs to make them financially dependent on him. Conformity was rewarded, mainly in the form of his sought-after affection.

Despite his obsession with immortality, Carlos Castenada died of liver cancer in April 1998. “Befitting of a man who made an esthetic out of mystery,” the New York Times reported when news of his death was made public after being withheld for weeks, “even his age is uncertain.” 

As soon as one mystery left the world, another entered. A day after Castenada’s death, Donner and three other women close to Castenada disconnected their phones and seemingly vanished into thin air. Patricia Partin, Castenada’s adopted daughter, also went missing. Her abandoned Ford Escort was found in Death Valley. Years later, her remains were found there as well.  

None of the disappearances were properly investigated by the LAPD, and so far, every citizen journalist and internet sleuth attempting to uncover the fate of the witches has run into a dead end. 

Ex-followers believe the women took their own lives. In life, Castenada often talked about suicide, framing death as the gateway to a higher plain of existence. When his health began to decline, the witches reportedly acquired guns. Taisha Abelar, one of the witches who disappeared alongside Donner, started drinking, but told those around her she wasn’t “in any danger of becoming an alcoholic” because, Salon quotes, “I’m leaving.” Also per Salon, Castenada had told Partin to take her Ford Escort “and drive it as fast as you can into the desert” if “you ever need to rise to infinity.” Suspicious, but ultimately inconclusive. 

Those who survived Castenada are convinced he genuinely believed everything he preached. As one ex-follower told Salon, “he became more and more hypnotized by his own reveries.” 

It seems the witches did as well. In Shabono, Donner parades fiction as fact. While she may have originally tried to parade fiction for fact in order to obtain fame and fortune, readers get the stronger impression that, the further the young anthropologist ventured into her own fantasy world of life and death and drugs and mysticism, the harder it became for her to separate the real from the imagined. 

At any rate, it’s a really, really well-written book.

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Colombia Touts Major Increase in Cannabis Exports

The marijuana trade is thriving in Colombia. The South American country announced last month that its cannabis exports increased 96% between November 2022 and January.

“The amount was US$8.4 million, thanks to the sales of 13 companies from five departments to 14 countries. Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Switzerland, Israel, the United States and Germany were the main buyers,” ProColombia, a government agency overseeing exports and tourism, said in an analysis released on January 26.

Carmen Caballero, the president of ProColombia, said that “58% of these exports were destined for Latin America and the Caribbean.”

“It is a sector that has significant potential in generating quality employment, especially for women, in different regions of the country. Likewise, cannabis value-added goods have stood out for their quality and innovation,” Caballero said.

The agency said that the $8.4 million worth of exports came from the following regions in Colombia: Bogotá (48%), Cundinamarca (30%), Antioquia (12%), Santander (8%) and Magdalena (2%).

In addition, ProColombia noted that “nine of the 51 participating companies are located in eight municipalities [Nemocón, Cajicá, Rionegro, Ubaté, Pitalito, Mosquera, Tocancipá and Pasca] with less than 200,000 inhabitants, which is part of the Government’s strategy to generate development by strengthening the business fabric in the regions.” 

“Likewise, last year, more than 90% of Colombian cannabis exports originated from the departments of Bogotá, Cundinamarca and Antioquia; however, 12 departments are identified (Antioquia – Bolívar – Boyacá – Cauca – Cundinamarca – Huila – Magdalena – Meta – Risaralda – Santander – Tolima – Valle del Cauca) with high export potential for this type of product,” the analysis said.

The cannabis was produced by 13 countries, according to ProColombia, with the exports reaching a total of 14 countries, including: Argentina (40%), Brazil (14%), Australia (12%), Switzerland (7%), Israel (6.5%), the United States (6%) and Germany (5.5%).

According to the agency, the “most sought-after goods abroad were extracts, medicines and seeds.”

“It is worth noting that in November 2022 the second Medicinal and Industrial Cannabis Business Roundtable was held, organized by the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism and ProColombia, with the support of Asocolcanna. At the meeting, 250 business appointments were held with 21 international buyers from 10 countries and 51 small and medium-sized companies, with a Colombian offer that ranges from extracts to finished pharmaceutical or cosmetic products,” the agency said last month.

With its warm and hospitable climate, Colombia is bullish on the long term prospects of its cannabis cultivation. 

“The country has a stable regulatory framework and is one of the most complete internationally, since it includes measures ranging from seed, cultivation, transformation, generation of added value and safe access by patients,” the agency said in the analysis last month, noting that the “environmental and geographical conditions of Colombia allow it to have 4 harvests a year in three different cultivation modalities (open sky, open sky with semi-automatic irrigation and indoor with light and irrigation)” and that “the country’s geographical position allows it to have 12 hours of solar radiation during the 365 days of the year, thus maximizing crop yields and reducing production costs.”

“Likewise, it is an industry that enables the scientific and technological development of Colombia, intensive in R+D+i, which allows the development of research centers,” ProColombia added. “It is also added that Colombia has a wide range of products: seeds, crude extracts, distillates, isolates, finished products such as phytotherapeutics and cosmetics. All this, complying with high quality standards, which enables insertion into global value chains.”

In December, members of the Colombian senate passed an amendment legalizing cannabis.

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My Coke-Free Visit to Escobar’s Home Turf

“Do not go there!” Valentina, a 27-year-old designer living in Medellín, yelled when I told her that I planned on visiting the Casa Museo Pablo Escobar, a museum dedicated to the Colombian drug lord. 

A quick Google search made me change my mind. The entrance fee to the museum is $30 – a hefty sum in a country where a full meal will typically cost you less than $5, and most of the museums are donation-based or free-of-charge. On top of that, online reviews were making the place out to be a rip-off, a collection of meaningless personal possessions, shoddy reproductions, and revisionist history. 

But that was not why Valentina told me not to go. A native Colombian, she felt it was disrespectful for tourists like me to go and waste their time, energy, and money on an individual who callously killed and intimidated so many of her countrymen.   

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what tourists are doing. For many – although certainly not all – it’s one of their primary reasons for coming to Medellín in the first place. Colombia has been attracting travelers with a perverse admiration for Pablo Escobar for decades, but the number of narco-tourists increased drastically following the release of Netflix’s Narcos, which has turned the kingpin from a fading memory into an alive-and-well pop culture icon.

While the Netflix series has boosted Colombia’s tourism industry and by extension the Colombian economy as a whole, Colombians are – understandably – upset that one of the most hated characters in their history books has now become the country’s de facto international ambassador. 

“To many of us, Pablo is our Hitler,” one person from Medellín told me. “To a few he was a hero, but mostly he brought a lot of evil to our city, and we will probably never get rid of the stigma, just like the Germans will never get rid of their history. I really despise people who buy or sell Pablo T-shirts, mugs, etc. It’s like me going to Berlin to sell T-shirts of Hitler. I’d get arrested before I sold the first one.”

“I have an uncle who I never met who died in one of his famous bombings,” another added. “I completely despise any reference towards that man.” 

Personally, I am tempted to hold Narcos partially responsible for creating or at the very least reinvigorating this reference for Escobar. In classic Hollywood fashion, Netflix made him thinner, handsomer and more charismatic than he was in real life. (They also cast a Brazilian actor instead of a Colombian one, but that is another story). On top of all this, the focus of the show is on his success, on his power. Viewers walk away from Narcos ruminating on how, at his peak, he was the 7th richest man in the world and controlled 80% of all cocaine. What they don’t realize is that, for the time that he was active, he pretty much held the whole country hostage through a campaign of domestic terrorism, blowing up apartment buildings and commercial airplanes just to kill a single person on his miles-long hitlist.  

Instead of Casa Museo Pablo Escobar, Valentina urged me to visit Barrio 13. A huge slum erected on the hills overlooking Medellín, Barrio 13 used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in all of South America, until the Colombian army swept in during the early 2000s. Things have improved since then – somewhat. It is still a total mess; there is no urban planning and no roads for cars, but instead of public executions, there’s music, graffiti, and – occasionally – those Red Bull BMX challenges you may have seen on YouTube. Most importantly, however, the residents seem to be earning a decent living off tourism. 

Graffiti artist in Barrio 13 / Photo by Tim Brinkhof

While ordering an IPA I later learned contained copious amounts of THC, I asked the guy who had brought me there – a local called Jason – how the people of Barrio 13 felt about a show like Narcos. The answer: not good. If I wanted to “see the real Escobar,” Jason told me, I should check out a Colombian show called El Patron del Mal, or “The Boss of Evil.” It’s a Latin soap-opera, not a blockbuster, but once I ignored the overly dramatic plot and music, I could see what he was getting at. First and foremost, Escobar, who was played by a Colombian actor, looked the part – overweight and less attractive. Patron del Mal also struck me as more authentic in its representation of Colombia. The Medellín the characters lived in was the same Medellín as I saw when I looked out of the window of my little Airbnb – full of energy and color. They drank aguardiente and gorged on paísa, a typical Antioquian dish of rice, beans, avocado, ground beef and fried pork, served with hot arepas. Most importantly, however, the life of crime did not seem nearly as glamorous in this show as it did in Narcos. We see Escobar for what he really was – a crook without a conscience; it wasn’t his intelligence that allowed him to get as far as he did, but the fact that he was willing to do things that others wouldn’t have been able to live with. 

Navigating the maze that’s Barrio 13 is hard enough when you’re sober, let alone when you’ve unintentionally gotten high off craft beer. Standing in line for the only outdoor escalator in the country, I began to notice how Colombian society dealt with the scars of narco-terrorism. Buildings that used to be painted with blood and bullet holes have since been covered up by gorgeous graffiti art that serves to remind people of anything other than drug-related violence. One of the barrio’s newest murals, Jason showed me, depicts Pachamama, an Andean goddess representing the Earth itself, and a much older and powerful symbol of Colombia’s cultural heritage than Escobar. 

While I never went to Casa Museo Pablo Escobar, I did visit Hacienda Napoles, one of the many homes he acquired with his fortune. Located near the town of Puerto Triunfo, about halfway between Medellín and Bogotá, the Hacienda had originally included a modest swimming pool, a landing strip for small airplanes, and a zoo filled with animals purchased on the black market. After Escobar’s death, the estate itself fell into disarray. The villa was ransacked and eventually raised to the ground. The animals, left to their fate, died or – in the case of the hippos – escaped into the surrounding wetlands, where they flourished and became invasive species.

Hippos at the Hacienda Napoles zoo / Photo by Tim Brinkhof

For years, the Colombian state fought to confiscate the land from Escobar’s relatives. When they succeeded, they turned the Hacienda Napoles into a theme park. At first, I thought that this was done in an attempt to cash in on narco-tourism trends. Fortunately, this was not the case. Upon falling into public hands, the Hacienda – like Barrio 13 – was transformed so as to remove all traces of its criminal past. To that end, the Hacienda Napoles of today is related to the Hacienda Napoles of Escobar in name only. The hilly terrain that had once served to hide the kingpin’s dealings from the outside world now features rollercoasters and swimming pools. The theme park’s theme is Africa, owing to the bigger and better zoo that has taken the place of the old one. Visitors – mostly Colombians holidaying in their own country – come to gawk at elephants, lions, tigers, flamingos, and a pair of absolutely monstrous boa constrictors. In contrast to Escobar’s own zoo, where zebras were ridden by his henchmen and ostriches handfed cigarettes, the Hacienda’s current animals live in spacious enclosures, enjoying a climate that – at least in terms of temperature – isn’t far off from their native savannahs. 

Cartel member riding one of Escobar’s zebras / Photo by Tim Brinkhof

The only reference to Pablo Escobar inside Hacienda Napoles is a small museum tucked away in the very back corner of the park. The museum, a partial reconstruction of the original villa, is dedicated to the victims of narco-terrorism. Inside you learn more about the history of the Hacienda, Escobar’s inevitable downfall, and the barbaric lengths that he went to trying to prevent that downfall. The white walls are covered with the portraits of politicians and police officers that he had killed, as well as pictures of blood-covered children being pulled out of the rubble of collapsed buildings. 

What shocked me more than these images was that most of the visitors around me had just come out of the pool and were walking through the museum half-naked, dripping wet, drinking beers and eating slices of pizza. At the time their behavior and appearance couldn’t help but strike me as inappropriate, and even made me think that they were a bit hypocritical to complain about gringos smoking blunts on Escobar’s grave back in Medellín. Days later, I realized how wrong I was. Whereas I, a foreigner, had traveled to Puerto Triunfo specifically to see what had become of Escobar’s former home, the average Colombian – it appears – comes here to swim in the swimming pools, ride the rollercoasters, and look at the animals. To them, Pablo Escobar is not the main event of their trip, but just an afterthought. This, as far as I am concerned, is as good a sign as any that the country – after decades of suffering – is well on its way to break free from the drug lord’s tightening grip.

Tourists checking out the narco-terrorism museum / Photo by Tim Brinkhof

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Argentina Launches New Agency To Boost Cannabis Industry

Argentina officially launched a new government agency on Wednesday as part of an effort to bolster the country’s medical marijuana and hemp industry. 

Reuters reports that the agency, known as the Regulatory Agency for the Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis Industry, or ARICCAME, represents “the first working group of a new national agency to regularize and promote the country’s nascent cannabis industry, which ministers hope will create new jobs and exports generating fresh income for the South American nation.” 

“This opens the door for Argentina to start a new path in terms of industrial exports, on the basis of huge global demand,” said Argentina’s economy minister Sergio Massa at an event marking the launch of the new agency.

According to Reuters, “Massa said that the agency would from Thursday begin regularizing programs and coordinating with various provinces and [the] industrial sector, adding Argentina already counted on demand for projects linked to the agro-industrial sector.”

On the official website for ARICCAME, the agency outlines its mission and objectives.

“We are the Agency that regulates the import, export, cultivation, industrial production, manufacture, commercialization and acquisition, by any title, of seeds of the cannabis plant, cannabis and its derivative products for medicinal or industrial purposes,” the website reads, via an English translation. 

The website lists the following “general objectives” for the agency: “Establish through the respective regulations, the regulatory framework for the entire production chain and national marketing and/or export of the Cannabis Sativa L. plant, seeds and derivatives for use in favor of health and industrial hemp; Promote a new agro-industrial productive sector for the commercial manufacture of medicines, phytotherapeutics, food and cosmetics for human use, medicines and food for veterinary use, as well as the different products made possible by industrial hemp; Generate the framework for the adaptation to the regulatory regime, of the cultivation and production of cannabis derivatives for use in existing health, guaranteeing the traceability and quality of the products in order to safeguard the right to health of the users of medical cannabis; Reintroduce hemp in Argentina and all its derivatives: food, construction materials, textile fiber, cellulose and bioplastics with low environmental impact; [and] Promote scientific research and sectoral technological progress, promoting favorable conditions for these existing industries in our country.”

ARICCAME’s specific objectives include: “Establish clear rules that provide legal certainty to the sector and encourage federal participation; Articulate through agreements and conventions with other State entities with intervention in the matter: INASE, SENASA, INTA, INTI, AFIP, INAES, BCRA, UIF, National Universities, etc; Determine the system of licenses and administrative authorizations for the productive chain; Generate quality standards that safeguard the right to health of users and consumers of cannabis/hemp products; [and] Control non-compliance with the regulatory regime.”

Argentine policymakers legalized cannabis oil for medical use in 2017. Three years later, the country legalized home cannabis cultivation for medical marijuana patients. 

The launch of the new agency is part of a border effort by the Argentine government to continue to reform the medical cannabis program, something that the South American country identified as a priority last year

According to Reuters, the newly launched agency will be helmed by Francisco Echarren, who “said the industry could generate thousands of new jobs, as well as create technological developments and new products for export.”

“We have a huge challenge ahead of us,” Echarren said, as quoted by Reuters, “not only getting a new industry on its feet, but giving millions of Argentines access to products that improve quality of life.”

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Guyana Authorities Seize Weed Shipment from the U.S.

Customs officials in Guyana last week intercepted and seized a box of cannabis that had been shipped from the United States. 

The Customs Anti Narcotic Unit (CANU), the top drug enforcement agency in the South American country, said in an announcement that its officers “were contacted on January 20, 2023, after packages of suspected cannabis were discovered in a box shipped from the United States at the Muneshwar shipping limited.”

“CANU officers arrived on the scene and conducted additional searches before taking possession of the box,” the agency said in the announcement, which was posted on Facebook. “The box was then transported to CANU headquarters in the presence of the employee of the shipping company, who made the discovery. The suspected cannabis tested positive for cannabis and amounted to 1.920 kgs.”

The Customs Anti Narcotic Unit said that investigations into the package are ongoing.

Despite marijuana’s ubiquity in Guyana’s warm climate, the country’s government takes a hardline against weed, strictly prohibiting its cultivation, sale and possession. 

Courtesy of CANU

According to the Guyana Standard, the Customs Anti Narcotic Unit “conducted several raids and was able to clear 3,403.68 kilogrammes of narcotics amounting to a street value of $1.1 billion off the streets” last year. 

“This represents a 68.26 percent increase in comparison to 2,022.88 kilogrammes of narcotics amounting to $634 million in 2021,” the outlet reported. “There were 24 cases of cocaine, 80 cases of cannabis, four cases of ecstasy, and two cases of methamphetamine in 2022.”

On the same day as the seizure of the cannabis package in Muneshwar, the Customs Anti Narcotic Unit announced that a woman had been “sentenced to four years in prison and fined $53.1 million for cannabis possession by Magistrate Leron Daly after admitting to having 59 kgs of cannabis in her possession for the purpose of trafficking.”

According to the Guyana Standard, the country’s government “has been investing millions of dollars in the security sector to provide a safe and secure environment for Guyanese,” including “purchasing vehicles for the Guyana Police Force (GPF) while training police officers and allocating half a million dollars to the Customs Anti Narcotics Unit (CANU) to advance its work.”

CANU was “established through a Cabinet decision in 1994 and was implemented in August 1995,” according to the law enforcement agency’s official website.

“The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act, 1988 was amended in 1999 to facilitate the legal operation of the Unit and to give it the same authority to enforce it, as the Guyana Police Force,” the site explains. “In April 2001, Guyana and the United States signed a Shiprider Agreement to suppress illicit traffic by sea and air. The agreement seeks to reduce the ability of illicit narcotics traffickers to elude maritime law enforcement agencies within and outside the territorial waters of Guyana, as well as to strengthen Guyana’s maritime law enforcement capabilities. On July 23, 2003, the National Assembly passed the Maritime Drug Trafficking (Suppression) Bill 2003. The Bill … provide[d] the legal framework for the implementation of provisions of international, hemispheric, regional and bilateral agreements, of which Guyana is a part. The Agency is also linked to INTERPOL, one of the world’s biggest coordinators of drug interdiction agencies. The Narcotics Unit also plays an active role in the World Customs Organisation. The Government of Guyana and the Government of Colombia signed an agreement that allowed Guyanese law enforcement officers to benefit from anti-narcotics training.”

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Study Finds Benefits Outweigh Risks of Ayahuasca Use

Given the recent Western uptick in ayahuasca use, a new study from the University of Melbourne took a closer look with data from an online Global Ayahuasca Survey, carried out between 2017 and 2019, of 10,836 people over the age of 18 who used ayahuasca at least once.

Ayahuasca is a concentrated liquid made from prolonged heating or boiling of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant to create a tea containing DMT, the psychedelic active element of the brew. 

The drink has been used for spiritual and religious purposes in the past and is still utilized for similar purposes. Often a shaman or curandero, an experienced healer and spiritual leader, prepares the brew and leads the ceremony, which are often held at night. The experience typically lasts between two and six hours and may usher in a number of effects, both positive and negative. 

Similar to other therapeutic psychedelic experiences, participants often seek out ayahuasca ceremonies to gain a new perspective, to confront trauma and seek long-term, life-altering changes, among myriad other reasons. Because it typically contains DMT, a Schedule I substance, ayahuasca is illegal under U.S. federal law.

Ultimately, the study found that the benefits and positive experiences from ayahuasca use outweighed any adverse effects. Researchers found that acute physical adverse effects, primarily vomiting, were reported by 69.9% of respondents, and 55.9% reported adverse mental health effects in the weeks or months following consumption. Though the majority, around 88% of people surveyed, considered these effects as part of the process of growth or integration after the ceremony, and those who experienced these side effects said they were expected.

Researchers noted that physical effects were related to older age at the time of initial ayahuasca use, having a physical health condition, higher lifetime and last-year ayahuasca use, having a previous substance use disorder diagnosis, and taking ayahuasca in a non-supervised context. 

Dr. Daniel Perkins, one of the study’s authors and a University of Melbourne research fellow, nodded to the increase in ayahuasca’s popularity when speaking with Healthline

“Recently we’ve seen a booming underground retreat culture in the Western hemisphere in which people pay hundreds of dollars to go to these retreats,” Perkins said. “It is a spiritual experience, but it is not something you get up and dance to. There is no real recreational use other than for alternative healing. Overall, it is not widely consumed.”

The study ultimately confirmed that ayahuasca use results in a high rate of adverse physical effects and challenging psychological effects, though they are generally not severe. Not only that, but many participants continue to attend ceremonies; authors suggest this means participants generally perceive the benefits as overshadowing any adverse effects.

Moving forward, researchers suggest further examination of variables that might predict eventual adverse effects to better screen or provide additional support for vulnerable subjects. They add that improved understanding of the risk.benefit balance users associate with ayahuasca could assist policy makers in decisions around potential regulation and public health responses.

“Many are turning to ayahuasca due to disenchantment with conventional Western mental health treatments,” the authors write in a media release, “however the disruptive power of this traditional medicine should not be underestimated, commonly resulting in mental health or emotional challenges during assimilation. 

“While these are usually transitory and seen as part of a beneficial growth process, risks are greater for vulnerable individuals or when used in unsupportive contexts.”

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Nazca Human Sacrifice Victim Used Psychedelics Before Death

Research into a Nazca ritual site in Peru has determined that a child sacrificed more than a thousand years ago as part of a religious ceremony had consumed the psychedelic drug mescaline prior to execution. Scientists made the discovery by analyzing a single hair from the head of a child whose head had been severed at the neck and fashioned into a ritual trophy.

The preserved head was one of 22 human remains from the ancient Nazca civilization, which inhabited southern Peru from about 100 B.C. to 800 A.D. The remains, which included 18 mummies and four trophy heads from a child and three adults, had been buried in southern coastal Peru more than a thousand years ago and were recovered as part of an archaeological program known as the Nazca Project.

Analysis of a single hair taken from the head of the child, whose sex and age at the time of death are unknown, revealed that the victim had ingested San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi) at some time prior to death, perhaps as part of a religious ceremony. San Pedro cactus contains the natural psychedelic drug mescaline and is known to have been used by South American indigenous cultures for medicinal and religious purposes.

“The trophy head is the first case of the consumption of San Pedro by an individual living on the southern Peruvian coast,” study lead author Dagmara Socha, a doctoral candidate in the Center for Andean Studies at the University of Warsaw in Poland, told Live Science. “It’s also the first evidence that some of the victims who were made into trophy heads were given stimulants before they died.”

Further analysis of hair samples taken from the other remains determined that many of the deceased individuals had taken psychedelics or stimulants prior to death. Through toxicological analysis, the researchers found that in addition to San Pedro cactus, the researchers discovered traces of Banisteriopsis caapi, the main compound of the psychedelic brew ayahuasca, a component of the ritual ceremonies of some South American indigenous cultures. Additionally, many had ingested coca leaves, the source of the stimulant cocaine.

“It was quite interesting to see how many people had access to [these plants],” Socha said. “We also wanted to discover the route of the trade of some of these ancient plants. For instance, the coca leaves were not cultivated on Peru’s southern coast, so they had to be brought there from either northern Peru or the Amazonian region.”

Archaeological Artifacts Discovered at Nazca Site

In addition to the human remains, the researchers discovered other items from the graves including ceramic pots, textiles, tools for weaving and a bag used for holding coca leaves known as a chuspa. The researchers determined that the drug use by the individuals found at the archaeological site occurred between 100 B.C. to A.D. 450. 

“We can see this transition of the plants was beginning early and we can actually trace the trade network,” Socha said. “Our research shows that these plants were extremely important to different cultures for medical or visionary effect. Especially since there’s no [written record] from this time period, so what we know about Nazca and other nearby cultures is from archaeological investigations.”

Rainer Bussmann, a professor in the Department of Ethnobiology at the Institute of Botany at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and the head of botany at the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart in Germany, published a study in 2006 that examined the usage of medicinal plants by indigenous communities in northern Peru. His research also explored the trade routes for different cultivated plants in the area.

“There was always a little trade going on in this region, with plants being traded from the Amazon up and down the [Peruvian] coast,” said Bussmann, who was not involved in the new study. “These plants were traditionally used for ceremonial or medicinal purposes, and [were] sometimes combined. I’ve never seen any reports of recreational use. For these cultures, there was always a specific purpose.”

Although evidence indicates that the plants were used for medicinal and ceremonial reasons, Socha noted that the researchers have not determined the scope of their use among the Nazca culture.

“We actually don’t know how often these [plants] were being used,” she said. “In the case of San Pedro, it’s not well preserved in an archaeological context, and in the case of the coca leaves and Banisteriopsis caapi, they were never found to be growing in this region during that time period.”

The results of the study will be published in the December 2022 issue of the Journal of Archeological Science.

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