Lebanon’s parliament on Tuesday approved a bill legalizing the cultivation of cannabis for medical use amid the objections of Hizbullah’s bloc and several independent MPs.
The move could generate revenue for the indebted state.
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.
The Bekaa became notorious for the drug trade during the 1975-1990 civil war, producing some $500 million a year in opium and cannabis. After the war, authorities launched crackdowns on the fields and encouraged alternative crops like potatoes, tomatoes and apples.
Cannabis planting bloomed once more after Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011 and Lebanese authorities shifted attention to other security concerns.
Driving through villages in the Baalbek and Hermel regions in eastern Lebanon, cannabis can be seen planted on the side of roads and in gardens. At some cases, security forces checkpoints are only a few hundred meters away. There are more than 40,000 arrest warrants against locals in the Bekaa Valley, many drug-related.
Most often, authorities prefer to turn a blind eye.
Well armed residents are ready to fend off any force trying to destroy their fields. When security forces move in to destroy fields with bulldozers and trucks, they can come under fire.
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.