The Lebanese parliament legalized cannabis farming for medicinal use on Tuesday. Cannabis is a potentially lucrative export for an economy in dire need of foreign currency as it grapples with a paralyzing financial crisis.
Although growing the plant is illegal in Lebanon, cannabis has long been farmed openly in the fertile Bekaa Valley. Parliament’s decision was “really driven by economic motives, nothing else”, said Alain Aoun, a senior MP in the Free Patriotic Movement founded by President Michel Aoun. “We have moral and social reservations but today there is the need to help the economy by any means,” he said.
Lebanon bans growing, selling and consuming cannabis, but illicit production in the country’s eastern Bekaa region has developed over decades into a multi-million-dollar industry. Under the bill, cultivation would be tightly controlled. Private pharmaceutical companies would provide seeds and seedlings to farmers and during harvest plants would be counted to make sure nothing had been diverted. The size of fields would be regulated.
Cannabis is a major source of livelihoods in impoverished Bekaa. The fertile Bekaa Valley has long been notorious as one of the world’s major narcotics-growing regions, producing some of the finest quality cannabis, mostly processed into hashish. Today, the country is the third biggest producer in the world after Morocco and Afghanistan, according to the U.N.
But the valley’s residents have rarely felt the benefits. Now they are hoping their work will soon become legal after decades of crackdowns and raids. Legalization seems to have gained traction in Lebanon after global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. included it among its suggestions in a government-commissioned study on ways to boost Lebanon’s economy.
Still, economists are split on the benefits. Louis Hobeika, an economist at Lebanon’s Notre-Dame University, warned that cannabis profits won’t go to state coffers or citizens but will be devoured by the widespread corruption among the ruling elite. “This is a move that aims to finance the political mafia in Lebanon,” he said.
MP Antoine Habchi of the Lebanese Forces disagrees, saying farmers and workers would finally have their rights in the trade. Traditionally, drug dealers benefit most, imposing a purchase price on farmers then selling the product for high higher prices.
Hezbollah, a Shi’ite Islamist group backed by Iran, was one of the only parties to oppose the legislation approved in a session on Tuesday. Several countries in Europe and South America, as well as Australia and Canada allow imports of medical cannabis. Canada and the Netherlands dominate exports. Several U.S. states allow medical or recreational cannabis, but importing is illegal.
Last month, Lebanese police carried out the country’s biggest drug bust when they seized about 25 tonnes of hashish that were set to be smuggled to an African state.
Source: various agencies