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Medicinal Marijuana, Inc.: A Critique on the Market-led Legalization of Cannabis and the Criminalization of Rural Livelihoods in Colombia

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In Colombia, Law 1787 of 2016 legalized marijuana for medicinal and scientific purposes. The law promotes social inclusion in two ways: (1) establishing mechanisms to incentivize rural marijuana production; and (2) protecting and strengthening small producers in the context of governmental efforts to voluntarily substitute illicit crops. These commitments are consistent with the peace agreement reached in 2016 between the guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government, in which a solution to the problem of illicit crops based on voluntary substitution and rural development was proposed. What has happened, however, is that instead of the proposed “inclusion,” the legalization of marijuana has benefited the corporate sector almost exclusively. Employing a southern criminological approach, we first analyze the punitive rationale in the so-called “War on Drugs” and the shift to a purportedly more benign pro-poor and pro-health legalization discourse. From here, we critique the legal architecture to regulate the production of marijuana. In so doing, we illustrate how uneven power relations and governmental capitalist favoritism have been utilized by corporate ventures located in the political and economic bureaucratic heart of Colombia, reproducing the historical marginalization of impoverished mestizo campesinos (peasant farmers), whose livelihoods have been dependent on illicit crops.

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Fig. 1

Source EFE (2020); UNODC (2019); U.S. Department of State (2001)

Fig. 2

Source Authors’ design based on Decree 893/2017, Ministerio de Justicia y del Derecho (2019), and Ministerio de Salud (2020)

Fig. 3

Source Authors’ design based on ART (2019), Ministerio de Justicia y del Derecho (2019), and Ministerio de Salud (2020)


  1. A campesino is a rural inhabitant with little or no land, who in the context of this research has self-identified as such.

  2. In this article, we have chosen to employ the term, “illicit crops,” to reflect the punitive and criminalizing discourse that is utilized by the Colombian government to refer to coca, marijuana and poppy crops. We use the term, “crops for illicit use,” to refer to the perspective of the peasants who argue that (i) the crop, itself, should not be illegal, but the use given to it; and (ii) these are the very same crops that enable impoverished communities to access basic needs.

  3. “Ecologically unequal exchange” is a concept used to describe the economic and ecologic asymmetries between the resource-rich regions or countries that bear the burdens of the most negative effects of extractivist activities, and the industrialized regions or countries where capital and most benefits of those same activities accumulate (see Bedford et al. 2020).


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This research was possible due to the financial support given by MINCIENCIAS and RCUK (Grant No. 791­2017). We are extremely grateful to the social organizations of Indigenous, Afro-descendants, and mestizo campesinos for their generosity in sharing their space, time, trust, and ideas. Their participation has always been at the heart of the Paz Alto Cauca Project (see

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Correspondence to Irene Vélez-Torres.

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Vélez-Torres, I., Hurtado, D. & Bueno, B. Medicinal Marijuana, Inc.: A Critique on the Market-led Legalization of Cannabis and the Criminalization of Rural Livelihoods in Colombia. Crit Crim 29, 505–526 (2021).

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