On 21st April, Lebanon became the first Arab country to legalise cannabis farming for medical use. The bill was first introduced in July 2018 following a report from McKinsey & Company on the Lebanese economy and recommendations to create economic growth. One of these recommendations was the legalization of medical cannabis production, estimating that it could inject as much as $1 billion annually into the Lebanese economy; an economy that is currently in freefall, crippled by debt.
As fantastic as a new billion-dollar industry might sound, many are doubtful that this shiny and new economic prospect will truly positively impact the 48% of the population that currently lives below the poverty line. Since October, Lebanon has been overrun by protests that are now starting to pick up momentum again as the country’s Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease. The popular uprising has demanded an end to the political corruption that has governed the country for decades. There have been calls for a completely new slate, a clean out of the current political elite, calls which have only been met halfway.
For those that are protesting, the legalization of medical cannabis production for export looks like yet another ploy by the political elite to line their own pockets while everyday people continue to suffer in the grips of poverty and unemployment. Louis Hobeika, an economist at Lebanon’s Notre Dame University has said that the new law is “a move that aims to finance the political mafia in Lebanon.” Unsurprisingly, such claims have been met with complete denial by those who have constructed the bill. Antoine Habchi, legislator and politician, claims that the intention of the bill is not only to boost the economy but to give farmers a chance to live with “dignity”.
Coincidentally, Habchi hails from the Bekaa Valley. The Bekaa in eastern Lebanon is roughly 75 miles long. Having been to the Bekaa Valley myself I can say with confidence that it is incredibly beautiful, with rolling green hills in Spring, and home to some of the most incredible ancient temples and architectural sites that Lebanon has to offer. It is also one of the largest basins of cannabis resin in the world. Given the small size of Lebanon, it is a pretty impressive title to bear.
Farmers have been growing cannabis in the Bekaa for hundreds of years. Families that would have otherwise been forced to endure abject poverty have survived off of the back of cannabis production for generations. But it was in the 20th century, particularly during the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, that the Bekaa really began to make a name for itself as one of the world’s major producers of marijuana and hashish. Under the French Mandate following WW1 cannabis production was made illegal, but within no time at all an informal underground network was set up. A network that could have only survived with a whole lot of people, politicians, and security officials turning a blind eye. When the Civil War broke out, drug production in the country, not only cannabis but opium poppies as well now, escalated massively; illicit drugs became a primary source of funds for militia rearmament, operations, and simple enrichment. As is typical for most wars, there is always room to make a profit for opportunists. One estimate suggests that marijuana plantations in 1977 covered roughly ten thousand hectares, four times the area covered before the war.
It is these farmers, not militia groups or quasi governments, that economists are worried will bear the brunt of the worst that the new law has to offer. Essentially, the way the new law would work is that licenses will be selectively given to private pharmaceutical companies who will then oversee and manage the farming of the cannabis which will largely be exported internationally. You are unlikely to receive a license to legally grow cannabis if you have a criminal record. Currently, there are more than 40,000 pending arrest warrants for those in the Bekaa Valley alone, not all drug-related but many are. This catch of the law will probably rule out the majority of those most experienced with cannabis production to grow cannabis legally under the new law.
For those who do manage to meet the requirements of a license, further complications remain. The introduction of private pharmaceutical companies into the process of production will inevitably shift profits further towards private corporations and further away from the farmers themselves who can no longer sell the crop directly to consumers at its full black-market value price. It is the pharmaceutical companies and traders who will most profit. Plus, in response to the new situation, in all likelihood, black market prices will sky-rocket which instead of encouraging farmers to grow cannabis legally is more likely to encourage them to continue to sell on the black market for greater profits, only endangering their livelihoods further. The new legislation has effectively put those most vulnerable in the chain of cannabis production between a rock and a hard place.
An obvious solution to the problem might seem to be to push farmers in the direction of changing which crops they grow. Unfortunately, it has already been tried, tested, and failed. In the 60s there was a big push in government policy in Lebanon to eradicate the illegal production of cannabis, it was called The Green Plan. Instead of growing cannabis, the government pushed farmers in the direction of growing sunflowers instead. The only issue is that sunflowers cost more to grow than hemp plants, and they sell for less. The same is true for other crops, potatoes for example cost 15 times as much as cannabis and, like sunflowers, also sell for less. For those families that were teetering on the brink of survival, the choice was obvious. If today’s farmers are faced with the same choice, in the interest of their families and their livelihoods, they will make the same choice that they made in the 60s.
The new law may sound progressive and promising, it sure has a nice ring to it to say that Lebanon is the first Arab country to legalise cannabis production, but it so far looks like the reality is a lot more grim. On top of the threat to farmers, the new law does not decriminalise the recreational use of marijuana or hashish. While many people in Lebanon may recreationally use marijuana and hashish, a highly potent drug made from the resin of the cannabis plant, the risk remains high. If you are caught by police either high or in possession of marijuana, the charges can be steep. It is not unheard of to face up to three years in prison for minor possession. In the UK, recreational marijuana may be illegal, but that fact coexists with the reality that in big cities you can get away with casual use. The same is not true for Lebanon.
The legalization of medical cannabis production is therefore likely to put recreational users in greater danger of facing criminal charges. Politicians have been open in declaring that an aim of the new law is to do away with recreational use in the country. What that means is that they have in effect developed a system of polarisation. By creating a legal sphere for cannabis production, they have clearly separated what used to be a grey area into the legal and the criminal. Where people used to be able to get away with recreational use, with the help of a blind eye or two, they will now find themselves coming up against the full force of the new law.
It seems like a double standard. To legalise cannabis production but in a way that those who reap the economic benefit are only the political elite, private corporations, and traders while the use of the same drug, either for medical purposes or recreational use, remains out of bounds for everyday people. People will remain in prison on charges of marijuana production and possession while politicians remain in power, enriched by the very same substance. Forgive me if I do not see the sense in that logic.
It is a double standard that does not apply to Lebanon alone. It is a standard that we champion here in the UK as well. A 2018 UN report found that the UK is the world’s biggest producer of legal cannabis. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, in 2016, the UK produced a staggering 95 tonnes of marijuana for medical and scientific use, making up 44.9% of the global total. It is also the world’s largest exporter of marijuana – accounting for roughly 70% of the world’s total, according to the UN report. Yet on the street marijuana is classed as a grade c illicit drug How is it tenable for the UK to deny its citizens the right to access the medical benefits of cannabis while it simultaneously pumps out nearly a 100 tonnes of legal medical cannabis to the rest of the world on an annual basis?
There are plenty of compelling reasons in favour of the movement to legalize marijuana, both recreationally and medically. The science that cannabis can be used as a pain reliever, as a form of stress relief, and to ease seizures is strong. Legalizing recreational use means that the government can better regulate and control production and consumption, instead of hunting down illegal production lines and trading, while also creating new job opportunities and an industry with significant financial potential. The move to legalize has taken steps forward in the US in the last decade more so than practically anywhere else. But even in the US legalization remains a complex issue and the exact legislation differs from state to state where production and use of cannabis is now legal.
As could be an issue in Lebanon, in most American states you cannot work within the legal cannabis industry if you have a previous marijuana-related conviction. There are some minor exceptions to this rule, for example in Colorado if five years have passed since your conviction then you can become eligible to work in the industry. When this is considered in the light of how marijuana-related convictions primarily target minority communities, particularly communities of colour, it seems obvious that there is a yawing gap in the legislation. In a state where the production of cannabis is now legal, why should someone who’s only conviction is marijuana-related be ineligible to work within the industry? Communities of colour in the US have suffered from targeted aggressive drug policies going as far back as the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909, and of course under Nixon’s War on Drugs. Are these communities not entitled to retroactive ameliorative relief in states where drug policies have been changed and marijuana has been legalized?
These are the arguments that many legalisation movements have been built off. But the new law in Lebanon and the situation in the UK are not products of these arguments, nor are they a reflection of the positive potential of legalizing cannabis production. Over a quarter of Lebanon’s population has taken to the streets over the last seven months to voice their anger over their government’s systemic corruption, the failing economy, the plummeting in the lira’s value, women’s rights, the list continues. Where is the guarantee that this new law will not be marred by the same corruption that Lebanese citizens demand be eradicated? Lebanon’s population is all too familiar with promising new economic proposals that promise to lift people out of poverty, and to solve the persistent problem of unemployment. And yet, somehow, someway, people never seem to see these magical financial benefits and it only looks like the rich are getting richer. The new law provides no road to redemption for the farmers who have grown cannabis for centuries, or for the recreational users of the city. We are often too quick to jump to the conclusion that the legalization of cannabis production is a step forward, but if we haven’t already learnt that that isn’t the case from our own double standards in the UK, then look at Lebanon. The new law will not be what it seems.
Artwork by Georgia Watkins
 The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the Drug Traffic by Jonathan Marshall (2012), p76