Jeff Oberfelder and his estate near Lake Chelan
Patricia Lara Salive

-OpEd-

BOGOTA — When I hear about people now selling marijuana legally in the United States, I think of all our fellow Colombians who have died over the years fighting America's absurd war on drugs. I think of Luis expand=1] Carlos Galán and Rodrigo expand=1] Lara Bonilla, two politicians gunned down by drug traffickers, and I imagine how these victims could have made Colombia a better place to live. What sense did their deaths have?

Then I hear the story of Jeff Oberfelder, an American marijuana grower whose website details the various strains of cannabis he can sell in the state of Washington. It appears that he became bored with plain old farming, abandoning his apples, cows and poultry, in order to produce marijuana on his estate near Lake Chelan, where he moved so his native Canadian wife could visit her family more easily.

Since mid-2013, Oberfelder has been a licensed marijuana grower, deemed worthy by the regulating Liquor Control Board, which also regulates alcohol sales. He paid the initial $1,000 required, filled out 140 pages of forms, and invested $100,000 to develop his farm, where he cultivated 600 marijuana plants over 15,000 square feet.

He also paid $20,000 for software and security mechanisms, and $10,000 for cameras to monitor the site. His plants met the required standards and biological characteristics, and had no contact with pesticides and other harmful chemicals such as glyphosate, which Colombia's Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria has thankfully banned here.

So as a duly licensed marijuana producer, Oberfelder began his little farm in July 2014, which has since earned him a perfectly legal $500,000.

Photo: Oberfelder Holdings Facebook page

His wife and another person work with him during regular periods, and he hires more hands at harvest time, he tells El Espectador. With this operation, the couple and their five children are earning a living, a very good one. Some of the children smoke joints occasionally, as do Oberfelder and his wife, twice a week. One of the sons has used marijuana to alleviate chronic ear pain, he says.

Obelfelder sells his produce to authorized processors at $6 a gram. They pack them and sell them to retailers, which are currently few in number but growing, given the improving market. And while the marijuana sold on the black market doesn't offer the quality guarantees of that sold in authorized stores, that market hasn't shrunk because its product is cheaper.

The marijuana market is definitely growing in the United States. There are constant television programs and fairs to promote it, and those states where it can be sold are raking in millions of dollars in related taxes. At the end of our conversation, I noted how hard this reality is for many to face in Colombia, where we have lost a lot of valuable people fighting this supposed US-led "war on drugs."

Calling the American drug policy of the past "bullshit," Obelfelder said he can understand that marijuana legalization is hard for Colombians to confront. "And it's sad," he added. "Why did Galán and Lara die? For nothing, just bullshit!"

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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