Lebanon Considers Legalizing Medicinal Cannabis
The initiative faces many hurdles, including endemic corruption, powerful illegal growers, and the presence of Hizbullah in areas of cultivation
Lebanon’s parliament is weighing legalizing cannabis production for medicinal purposes, Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, revealed Wednesday. The move is widely being interpreted as a way for the country to boost its flagging economy.
“The Lebanese parliament is preparing to study and adopt legislation necessary for the cultivation of cannabis and its manufacture for medical uses in the manner of many European countries and some U.S. states,” according to a statement released by Berri’s office.
Other senior members of the government have thrown their support behind the plan. Economy Minister Raed Khoury earlier this month boasted in an interview with Bloomberg that Lebanon’s cannabis is “one of the best in the world.” A decision to legalize its cultivation, he added, could inject $1 billion into the economy.
The Lebanese economy is in dire need of some quick-fixes, as it has suffered from inertia since the outbreak of hostilities in neighboring Syria in 2011. Analysts estimate that economic growth has fallen from 9 percent before the conflict to about 2% today. The big drivers of the economy—construction and real estate—have stagnated. The result is a country saddled by a debt-to-GDP ratio of 153%, making it one of the most indebted states in the world.
Surprisingly, the country already exports large quantities of cannabis. Although growing it remains illegal, powerful landowners and clans in the fertile Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon have long defied the law. Backed by armed men, they have openly grown and exported the crop for decades. The area has earned a reputation for being off-limits to outsiders.
Authorities in other countries have seized large amounts of cannabis resin that originated in Lebanon. In fact, a 2018 report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked the country third—after Morocco and Afghanistan—in terms of the amount of cannabis seized.
Complicating matters further is the presence of Hizbullah fighters in the Beqaa Valley, which is considered one the group’s strongholds. This raises thorny questions about who will control the production of, and therefore the revenues generated by the crop. Furthermore, analysts are perplexed as to how the lawless Beqaa Valley can be transformed into a legal cannabis production zone with billions of dollars at stake.
Imad al-Hout, a Lebanese lawmaker, told The Media Line that “there will be huge community negatives if we legalize cannabis and neglect to monitor it properly,” adding that legalizing the product “might positively impact the Lebanese economy, however, the social impact is important. Such an initiative requires complete government control.”
Al-Hout further explained that the Lebanese government often lacks the means to control economic initiatives. “I believe the country should focus on building a strong government, which will be able to monitor all sectors the way it should.”
Finally, he emphasized that the government needs to enhance security in the many areas where a culture of tribalism exists and look for other solutions if this proves too difficult. “We are not under pressure to legalize cannabis now. Rather, we should first focus on formulating alternative growing options.”
Qasem Qaseer, a Lebanese political analyst, contended to The Media Line that the government should be the only buyer of any cannabis produced legally, as this would ensure transparent pricing from farmers and better regulatory practices. “The southern part of Lebanon is an excellent agricultural area. People there are used to growing Cannabis illegally and smuggling it out,” he noted. “By legalizing it, the government can better regulate cannabis production and ensure it is sold strictly for medical purposes.”
Qaseer also highlighted the religious dimensions of the prospect. “In terms of Islamic law, if cannabis is used for medical purposes then it’s okay. But if it is intended for personal use, then it’s definitely “haram” [forbidden].”
Assad Bishara, a Lebanese citizen, told The Media Line that “growing cannabis for medical reasons is an accredited phenomenon in many countries around the world, although each country must respect laws and international regulations on its usage.
“The government needs to develop a very strict method of controlling how cannabis is used and must limit it to medical purposes only. If not, it will simply be a cover for drug dealers. It’s a huge responsibility on the Lebanese government,” Bishara asserted, “I understand they are in need of more economic resources, but I think this one is unhealthy and inappropriate.”
Sulleiman, a Lebanese citizen who asked that his last name be withheld, believes that “if cannabis will be used for medical purposes, then it’s an excellent initiative as the crop has great health benefits. Based on reports, Lebanon will rake in $800 million to $1 billion a year and that is excellent too.”
He explained to The Media Line that if Lebanon experiments with alternative growing options, it will not work because of poor management and corruption that will only benefit drug dealers.
“This is a recipe for chaos. But I am with it if the government is serious about completely controlling the cannabis sector in Lebanon. Otherwise, I’m against it.”