For all the talk of federally legalizing cannabis in the US, sometimes one fails to take proper stock of the progress that’s being made beyond our borders. If one manages to keep tabs on Canada and monitor the prospects for legalization in Mexico, the focus is still too rarely tuned into what’s happening outside of North America. Be it science from Israel, shifts in public approval across Europe or Latin America’s rosy prospects as a major international exporter of cannabis, there’s undeniably a plethora to be gleaned by paying close attention to other markets.
At least that’s what Alvaro Torres, founder, director and CEO of Colombia’s Khiron Life Sciences Corporation is betting on.
Founded in the wake of the Congress of the Republic of Colombia’s 2016 decision to approve a regulatory framework for a national medical cannabis market, Khiron states it’s one of “three or four” companies currently licensed to cultivate the plant for sale in the country providing product to more than 90 percent of Colombia’s medical cannabis patients.
“When medical cannabis came along a few years ago,” Torres says, “I just knew it was here to stay, that it wasn’t a trend, that it was going to be here for the next century.”
As part of this plan, Torres correctly anticipated that establishing an export element to his business would provide Khiron with seemingly limitless opportunity to expand as other countries and government bodies join the steady march of nations ushering in new eras of cannabis reform. “My approach was to create a disruptive force to improve the quality of life for people in Colombia, because that’s where I live, and then the rest of Latin America,” he said.
To underscore this effort, Torres, a self-proclaimed Greek mythology fan, decided to name his company after the centaur known as the patron saint of pharmacies—a creature who, according to legend, once taught Hercules about medicine. “I didn’t want to create a company that was based on marijuana or cannabis,” he says. “I wanted to create a company that was about improving the quality of people’s lives.”
Over the past five years, Khiron has made great strides in accomplishing this goal. Today, the company has various deals and strategic relationships with at least six countries. In December 2021, Khiron opened a clinic in London, and Torres estimates that half of Khiron’s cannabis sales will come from Germany in 2022.
They’re also expanding within Latin America with clinics in places like Peru and Ipanema, Brazil. When it comes to cultivating the product for sale, Khiron’s position as a Colombian exporter couldn’t be more ideal. Beyond the fact that the country’s proximity to the equator makes for longer growing cycles and desirable conditions, Colombia also provides access to two oceans, plus cost-effective labor, water and energy.
The bigger challenge comes from the regulatory side, which is why Khiron hired one of the people responsible for crafting Colombia’s cannabis regulations to serve as its vice president of regulatory affairs.
Juan Diego Álvarez recalls that he was studying for his PhD in public health law at Tulane University in New Orleans when he got a call from Colombia’s Ministry of Health asking him to come home. The reason? They needed help shaping the regulation of medical cannabis in the country. In 2017, after two years, he left to join Torres at Khiron, where today he oversees all that goes into being compliant as a prominent international cannabis brand.
“One of the reasons I left the ministry to join Khiron was that my approach to medical cannabis was more focused on how you ensure patients have access to a safe product, and the government was thinking more about how to position Colombia as a leading exporter of raw material,” Álvarez said.
Indeed, in speaking with Álvarez and Torres, they repeatedly take the conversation back to Khiron’s focus: First and foremost, Khiron is dedicated to providing the best possible access for Colombian medical cannabis patients. And, on that front, they’ve already helped usher along some rather incredible advances.
First, in July 2021, the Colombian government decided that patients could access medical cannabis at any drugstore in the country. Before then, there were some 1000 locations legally permitted to dispense it. Then, in December the same year, the government decided to make it mandatory for insurance companies to cover the cost of all medical cannabis products. This latter ruling went into effect on January 1, 2022, making Colombia only the second country on the planet—along with Germany—to offer such a program.
“That happened because of the work that Khiron has done with the government,” Torres said. “Everybody talks about brands a lot, but in the end, a brand is a connection with a consumer or a patient. That connection is what’s going to be important, not the design of our label. We must always try to make it better for the patient and easier for the patient to get the medication. That’s how you build a brand—the rest is just cannabis.”
As for the immediate future, Álvarez is currently keeping a close eye on Mexico as Khiron’s next major market to tackle. Though legalization remains a work in progress there, the presence of former president Vicente Fox Quesada on Khiron’s board suggests that something may be imminent.
At least for now, however, the US isn’t a top priority market for Khiron, due to concerns of oversaturation and lack of access. But neither Álvarez nor Torres is closing the door on one day bringing Khiron to America. Whether or not they ultimately export product to the US, both men feel they’ll always have something to offer in the form of the invaluable data they’ve collected through their clinics in Colombia and other markets.
“We’ve been collecting a lot of data about how cannabis interacts with other types of drugs, how cannabis works in different concentrations and with different pathologies,” Álvarez said. “This is information that’s not generally available, and it’s going to be one of the keys in the future by offering cannabis products and treatments to patients in any jurisdiction. Of course, this is something that was created in Colombia, but now it has a global face and global potential use.”
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.