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Sir Richard Branson is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Maria Cattaui, is a former secretary-general of the International Chamber of Commerce and member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Cannabis has been considered one of the “most dangerous” psychoactive substances with little to no medical benefit since the first United Nations drug control treaty was established in 1961. It was strictly prohibited and, for decades, countries have fought, literally, to enforce the ban on its production, sale, possession and consumption, with the aim of eliminating it from society.

Faced with reality, however, countries are now increasingly recognizing that prohibition enforced by repression has utterly failed to curb supply and demand, while exacting a heavy toll on society in terms of money wasted, lives lost to crime, incarceration, and discrimination.

The past decade has seen monumental change. Nearly 40 countries around the world have legalized the substance for some form of medical use and, in January, 2019 the World Health Organization published a review of the potential risks and benefits of cannabis (the first such review sanctioned by an intergovernmental body since 1936), acknowledging the medicinal usefulness of cannabis.

This situation has led to a growing trade of plant-based medical cannabis products among countries where it is legal in some form, with many of these concentrated in the Americas (Canada, Jamaica, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay – and currently under consideration in Brazil). Canada alone exported almost 1,500 kg in 2018, three times the volume exported in 2017. Colombia, meanwhile, aims to produce more than 40 tons of cannabis for medical use per year as of 2019.

The market is clearly going mainstream, And this, despite the fact that the use of cannabis is still banned in most countries and that cross-border trade of medical cannabis is subjected to stringent regulations, with systems tracking the product from seed to sale. These international guidelines, however, are still set within the prohibitionist framework and fail to address some of the most important aspects – ethical as well as financial – of this burgeoning trade for medical cannabis, including: trade relations between the northern and southern hemispheres, environmental concerns, fair trade practices, social justice and other sustainable development goals.

There is now a unique moment, therefore, to build a coherent regulatory framework that would prevent this growing market from being concentrated in the hands of large for-profit conglomerates, beholden to purely commercial interests, which might well introduce new harms just as those created by prohibition are being mitigated. It is particularly important do so before big actors such as the United States follow and legalize medical cannabis at the federal level.

There is first a pressing need to knock down the considerable market barriers that exist for small-scale farmers from traditional producer countries in low- and middle-income countries. These actors have often been those most affected by the so-called “war on drugs”, which has fostered discrimination, poverty, violence, and fear. Countries should enfranchize these populations, erase criminal records related to activities that are now legal, and ensure that the business practices that characterize the nascent legal medical cannabis market prioritize ethical standards and promote effective sustainable development and adequate labour protection laws, to help lift populations out of poverty and preserve traditional cultivation areas.

The “green gold rush” in Colombia serves as an example of the type of hurdles that exist between legislation and implementation. The country legalized medical cannabis in 2016, with a provision stipulating that licensed companies must acquire at least 10 per cent of raw cannabis material from local growers. However, this has been proving difficult to implement due to complexities on the ground. Local farmers did not benefit from any training or infrastructure from their national or local authorities before licenses were given to foreign companies. Therefore, as reported by researchers, many of these companies hired local farmers as day labourers, far from the intended objective of balanced partnerships where local expertise ensures the sustainability of the production and of revenues to these farmers.

There are also environmental concerns to consider. A well-designed regulatory framework for the international medical cannabis trade should impose production and distribution processes that respect sustainability goals with regard to the use of energy and water. Many regions in Latin America have traditions of cultivating cannabis and its ceremonial use, and therefore not only have the know-how but also a more favourably environment for producing the plant. This must, however, be balanced with the impact of trading the product between distant countries, even within the hemisphere.

There are certainly no easy solutions to these issues, but a debate must take place, taking into account the interests of all parties and the long-term viability of the market. But it is certainly within our power to design a regulatory framework that is mutually beneficial to corporations and small-scale actors, to the countries with high income and those with a low one, and that will erase the harms of prohibition while avoiding new ones arising from an over-commercialized market.

Editor’s Note: Cannabis Professional’s Mark Rendell be moderating a panel on Sept. 4 at the first annual Cannabis in Latin America & the Caribbean conference, at Deloitte’s office in Toronto. More information here.

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