Two of the founding partners of the Colombian owned medicinal cannabis company Clever Leaves spoke with The City Paper from their farm in Pesca, Boyacá. In just over three years Julián Wilches and Andrés Fajardo have created a company that aims to supply much of the global market for medicinal cannabis, as well as offer pharmaceutical derivatives to the Colombian health industry. Driving the corporate “mojo” – term Julian and Andrés use to describe their company’s vision, is the priority of generating employment in the countryside, good management practices, and sustainable harvesting methods in order to deliver the highest-grade medicinal cannabis to patients around the world.
The City Paper (TCP): Julián, as director of corporate and regulatory affairs at Clever Leaves, what made you leave the public sector at the Ministry of Justice to work in the medicinal cannabis industry?
Julián Wilches (JW): This is the type of agro-industry Colombia needs, one that generates formal employment and allows farmers to enter the financial system. We are the largest formal employer in the town of Pesca with women, mostly single mothers, mak- ing up 75% of our workforce. Rural employment in Colombia is 95% informal, and with a staff of 250 in just one year, this is an important achievement. Colombia has very clear regulations when it comes to drug policy, and it is completely aligned with international drug treaties. As a member of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the objectives are twofold: that controlled substances do not reach illegal markets, and that controlled substances can be used in regulated medical industries.
The prime example of this is opium. In health care, opium is used in many medicines, and well-known to the pharmaceutical industry. The medicinal use of cannabis in Colombia is clearly defined, and only doctors have the capacity to make the decision of whether to prescribe it or not. At Clever Leaves, legality is a fundamental objective, and if there are any grey zones, we consult with regulatory entities to resolve them with the patient always top of mind.
TCP: With a recent change in government, are you concerned that the regulatory framework could work against the cannabis industry?
JW: With clear rules, we can have a clean game, and as mentioned, Colombia has one of the best regulatory frameworks that was approved by Congress. The decision by Congress represents the will of the people, and we have been working very closely with regulators since the process began. What we have seen is a disposition by the health authorities to care for patients and observe the industry closely, as well as control the industry, which we look favorably upon.
Colombia has granted between 200 and 300 licenses for the cultivation of medicinal cannabis, and since Law 30 was enacted in 1986, there has been constant progress, regardless of changing governments to clearly define the regulatory framework that allows safe and informed access to the medical and scientific use of cannabis.
TCP: In three years, Clever Leaves is among the top 10 cannabis producers in the country. What has contributed to such fast growth?
JW: We know that there are some 80 companies operating in the country in different stages of advancement. We do, however, consider ourselves pioneers as we have moved faster, and in one year, have reached our production goals. We currently have seven hectares growing medicinal cannabis in a very controlled and secure setting, with plans to expand to 23 by the middle of this year. When looking closely at Colombian law, there is no reason why the framework should become unstable, as there is a lot of expectation around the world for this industry.
TCP: Why did the company decide on Boyacá for setting up the first farm and nursery?
JW: Ideal agro-climatic conditions mostly. The area around Sogamoso receives some of the most direct sunlight in the country, and as security is very important to us, the municipality of Pesca is very peaceful with zero homicides. We also have a military battalion just three kilometers away and good road infrastructure all the way to Bogotá. The people from this region are also very industrious and responsible, and very proud to have an opportunity to cultivate a plant that can help those who are sick. This is an industry that values knowledge.
TCP: How do you “sell” the idea of harvesting medicinal cannabis from Colombia to international investors?
JW: When we mention our know-how overseas, beginning with the farmer, who works the land and understands the meteorological conditions, to the professionalism of Colombia’s workforce, this project sells itself by itself. This is the complete opposite of the perceptions many have regarding drugs and the country. We generate jobs and abide by the highest environmental standards needed to grow a plant that can help people, hence no pesticides and organic practices from composting to drying.
TCP: How engaged is the company with the medical community?
JW: There are medical clusters in Colombia that are very enthusiastic about the possibilities of medicinal cannabis, which have been well documented by the international community – especially for specific types of pathology. This is not a cure for every sickness, and as many of Colombia’s health professionals have not received formal training of the cannabinoid system, there is a lot of research that needs to be shared within the industry. Patients can’t be in the hands of unregulated products. As a country, we face the challenge, from academia to industry, to study and analyze the research regarding cannabinoids. Some seven research papers are published every day around the world on this subject, the fastest growing topic among investigators.
TCP: People are under the impression that with the growth of this industry, there will be more cannabis being prescribed by doctors. Is this true?
JW: Colombian regulations permit the commercialization of the cannabis concentrate for business-to-business only, this clearly cannot be given directly to patients. This full spectrum extract is what we produce at the farm and in our laboratory near Bogotá. Then, we have finished pharmaceutical products, very specific medicines prepared for individual patient needs. This master formula is also what we produce here with a process that is recognized in Europe and in many countries in the world. These derivatives come in tablets, sprays, drops, etc. In Colombia, these tailor-made products are the fastest way patients can receive medication, and we are very involved in the development, standardization, and quality control. Colombia has the capacity to become a “Silicon Valley” of medicinal cannabis, and a country where much of the innovation and investigation can take place.
TCP: The term legality is at the heart of the corporate discourse, but the notion that cannabis from Colombia fuels a negative stereotype of drug culture is hard to shake off…
JW: I sold my apartment and my car to raise some of the money for this start-up, and as I have always worked in the public sector, from the Ministry of Justice to the General Attorney’s Office, I feel passionate about public initiatives that help society and promote a culture of the common good. Clever Leaves wasn’t founded to be a company on paper, but a life project of many, including myself. Yes, legality is a value at the heart of Clever Leaves, which generates a source of pride for the town and the department of Boyacá.
TCP: Andrés, As the CEO of the company, what differentiates Clever Leaves from other players?
Andrés Fajardo (AF): We created a company to be sustainable over time based on three characteristics: to have a good business strategy, to have a clear focus on our central mission, and above all, to have extraordinary people working with us. The human resource has greatly contributed to our rapid growth. When people love what they do, the results can be extraordinary. We want to promote a sense of happiness in the short term, and give our workers long-term objectives within the company. This is our differentiating factor with others in the industry.
TCP: How did you come up with the name of the company?
AF: The name Clever Leaves came about because we want to take the benefits of medicinal cannabis to patients all over the world, so the wordplay with “clever” and “leaves” is that these plants are clevering themselves, and can change the lives of so many. But, it’s more than that. We are clever in the way we think strategically, and clever because of the people who are part of the company.
TCP: The medicinal cannabis industry is still in its infancy in Colombia. Do you think the county can overcome this drug stigma with your products?
AF: As a company, we truly believe that Colombia has had a very hard history around drugs and cannabis. Our view is that as an industry, we have not only the right, but the responsibility to take this horrible story and turn it into something very positive for the country. A country that can help change the lives of people. Patients. But, also the lives of Colombians. We feel that our mission is to help change the reality of the agricultural sector. As an industry, we can never forget that this is a significant part of what we do.
This is a story about people, not plants. People for the people. We are transforming the history of a region and, hopefully, the country by generating science and innovation. This is one of those industries that seldom comes along, and we have the infrastructure to transform cannabis into the best medical product. We like to say that our medicinal cannabis is “a gift from Colombia to the world.” Colombia, with all the stigma that has been associated with drugs, has the right to win in this industry, not only because we have geographic and topographic advantages, but also because we are aligned with the international legal parameters, and lastly, because we have the possibility to move beyond the illicit focus of drugs and deliver products that benefit life.