High times: how cannabis legalisation could transform Lebanon
Editors: Molly Blackall and Christie van Tinteren
A recent report suggests legalising billion-dollar cannabis industry in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley could be the solution to the country ailing economy. However, many farmers remain skeptical of the government’s intentions.
With its craft microbreweries, tranquil canal-woven lanes, and picturesque tilting gabled buildings, Amsterdam is perhaps the last place one might expect the story of Lebanon’s ailing economy to anchor itself. And yet, behind the steaming glass veneers of the city’s famous coffee shops lies what is increasingly being touted as the solution to the country’s financial woes - "Lebanese Gold", a strain of hashish renowned by self-proclaimed aficionados the world over for its taste and quality.
In 2016, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Lebanon as one of the world’s top five producers of cannabis resin, sitting only behind Morocco and Afghanistan. With the industry valued at about $4bn (£3.3bn) it remains a highly lucrative enterprise, a fact that has not escaped the notice of both economists and politicians alike.
The Lebanese government will soon begin analysing proposals to legalise cannabis cultivation with the aim of exporting it globally for medicinal purposes. The plan is part of a package of reforms proposed by global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. – who were drafted in to construct a wide-ranging, five-year plan to diversify and boost Lebanon’s stagnant economy.
This decision to bring in outside help came in the wake of increasingly dire predictions regarding the country’s finances. As it stands, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 153%, Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world and this month the World Bank warned of an alarmingly “unsustainable path”. The civil war in neighbouring Syria has only exacerbated this crisis: economic growth has plummeted from 9% to just under 1% since the outbreak of the conflict, and there are now close to one and a half million refugees in the country – most of whom live in the impoverished but highly fertile Beqaa Valley.
Located 30 kilometres to the east of the capital Beirut and nestled between Mount Lebanon and Syria, the Beqaa Valley has been the heart of Lebanon’s cannabis country since at least Ottoman times. The industry in the region peaked during the chaos of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, when an estimated 2,000 tonnes a year was leaving through illegal ports on the coast. However, the sector largely collapsed following a worldwide crackdown on narcotics led by the United States in the early 1990s. Over the next two decades, under pressure from the U.S. State Department, successive governments followed a stringent policy of annually destroying the crops come harvest season, resulting in what became an almost timetabled bout of deadly yearly clashes between armed farmers and the state.
But then something changed. The outbreak of the conflict in neighbouring Syria provided an unexpected boom for Lebanon’s cannabis farmers. With the state increasingly overstretched attempting to protect its borders, it suddenly lacked the resources and capability to annually destroy the cannabis crops on the scale it once had. As a result, what’s followed has been an unequivocal upsurge in the region’s trade – which local farmers have reported to be upwards of 50% since 2012, according to the Guardian. Indeed, in a region stricken with rampant unemployment and little alternative for the disenfranchised, it is unsurprising that farmers are increasingly being pushed to grow amidst this newfound autonomy – a kilogram alone can fetch upwards of $400 US dollars before its smuggled across the border to markets in Syria, Turkey, and even Israel.
Adding to this, the area has also been disproportionately affected in the last decade by global warming, according to NASA. This stark contrast between the Beqaa’s vibrant green cannabis fields and the arid surrounding land has for years raised a dilemma for the area’s impoverished farmers. In an area perennially stricken with droughts, cannabis is hardier, less thirsty and cheaper to grow than the region’s other main crops, and it flourishes in the high altitudes of the Beqaa plains.
But whilst the capability is there, the Beqaa has long been a convoluted web of competing interests, and the state apparatus is far from the most powerful player in the region. The predominant political force in the area, Hezbollah, appears to have a largely hands-off relationship with the farmers, according to experts and locals. While the group has refrained from publicly endorsing efforts to legalise the crop, its most prominent political ally, House Speaker Nabih Berri, came out in July of this year and backed the move, becoming the most senior figure to do so. However, there remains little likelihood of an expedited move towards legalisation anytime soon. Nearly six months after a general election, Lebanon’s political forces are still squabbling over the formation of a new coalition government. In particular, the shoestring fragility of the Beqaa’s political makeup itself, with a climate of effective de jure and de facto control between the state and Hezbollah respectively, is something that need be navigated if new legislation is to be drafted in.
Even before the 2011 Syrian Civil War, the exports of Lebanon’s hashish industry were already worth an estimated $200 million US dollars annually. In fact, if it were legal, it would today be the country’s third highest export. It is unsurprising therefore, amidst the country’s nascent financial and socioeconomic crisis, that the government is now taking incipient steps to derive its own share of the profits. The legalisation of cannabis has the potential to provide significant national revenue through increasing employment, income, and social security tax revenues by shifting labour from criminal to legal and taxed activities. Indeed, with respect to the 1.5 million refugees currently residing within the country, it is intuitive that Lebanon simply cannot support them in any decent manner without an economic activity that brings income to the farmers and workers in the areas where these refugees are concentrated. There’s just one catch. Any attempt at legalisation would mean working with the same group of people the state has spent decades antagonising, and many of these individuals remain suspicious of the government's intentions and motives.
Yammoune, like many towns in the Baalbek Hermel area, is on the frontline of the battle to legalise the crop. The plant is so widespread here that it even grows on the side of the road. For decades, the cannabis trade in the region has funded access to semi-autonomous social services and health infrastructure, filling a void left by an overstretched national government widely criticised for being apathetic to the needs of the local population. As new legislation regarding cannabis legalisation is discussed, many local farmers fear that self-serving government regulation has the potential to eat away at such revenue, or see bigger corporate players run them out of business altogether. As such, they are weary of the extent to which legalisation endows a state apparatus they see as feckless and corrupt with centralised control. Indeed, such allegations of corruption are not unfounded – the country is ranked 143rd in the world in Transparency International’s index on corruption. Even at present, allegations remain in place that the biggest beneficiaries of the illegal black market are state officials themselves, through which the product is purported to be smuggled abroad to global markets.
This distrust of the state comes from years of unkept promises. In 2012, shortly before harvesting season, authorities came in with tractors to destroy the cannabis fields in Yammoune. The residents fought back, pitching barricades and blocking all roads leading into the town. After intense negotiation, authorities were finally allowed to peacefully destroy the crops in exchange for promises to bring development projects and alternative crops to the area. To date, these promises have never materialised.
If legalisation is indeed given the go-ahead, officials estimate cannabis could be a $1 billion US dollar industry for Lebanon, something that would no doubt serve to alleviate some of the symptoms of its nascent decay. However, there is significant risk of the government proving myopic in its implementation. If they really wish the legalisation programme to succeed, they must learn from past transgressions and bring on board the very farmers with which this global supply chain begins. Indeed, many politicians believe that legalisation will in itself be the first step to rebuilding the trust between these farmers and the state. However, it could be months if not years before a law fully comes into action, no doubt as it is forced to meander the political complexities and bureaucratic hurdles that have come to define Lebanese politics. In the meantime, the cannabis farmers of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley are stuck in limbo – their only livelihood still very much illegal, but unable to transgress crippling poverty through alternative means.