In years past, there have been proposals floated in Lebanon for cannabis legalization. But this time, the country’s legalization initiative is being crafted by a prestigious New York consulting firm and has won global media attention. The time could finally be right for the Middle Eastern nation to legalize cannabis and export hash on the international market.
The Technocratic Case for Hash Legalization
In a July 6 interview with Bloomberg News, Lebanon’s acting minister for economy and trade, Raed Khoury, outlined the proposal developed by Manhattan-based consulting firm McKinsey & Company. The idea comes as part of a wider plan to address the country’s worsening fiscal crisis with a crash diversification of the economy.
Khoury plugged what he called likely “quick wins.” These included boosting tourism, new crops such as avocados, a “construction zone” from which rebuilding efforts for war-ravaged Syria could be staged — and legalizing the already deeply entrenched cannabis sector. He predicted that exporting hash onto the world’s medical marijuana market would be especially productive.
“The quality we have is one of the best in the world,” Khoury boasted to Bloomberg of his country’s fabled herb, adding that cannabis holds the potential to become a billion-dollar industry.
Khoury said implementing the basics of the 1,000-page report will be critical if debt-burdened Lebanon expects the international community to start releasing $11 billion in grants and loans, as they pledged earlier this year. In other words, this time cannabis legalization is being presented in conservative, pro-business terms of fiscal responsibility.
A summary of the document has been presented to President Michel Aoun, and the full version is awaiting ratification by the new cabinet. Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is still struggling to form that cabinet following May’s elections, which left the government divided. The Shi’ite party Hezbollah gained more parliamentary seats, leaving the Sunni and Christian communities scrambling for greater representation.
In addition to being a political party, of course, Hezbollah is also among the various militias that control hashish fiefdoms in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the fertile cannabis heartland along the Syrian border. During the 2006 Israeli military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israeli cannabis enthusiasts actually organized a boycott of Lebanese hash in an effort to undermine Hezbollah.
But in fact, the Bekaa Valley has long been a patchwork, with several contending militias each controlling hashish operations. Bekka cannabis was the green gold that fueled vying factions in Lebanon’s civil war of the 1980s, a complicated struggle involving Shi’ite militias like Hezbollah as well as Sunni and Christian paramilitaries. Since then, the hashish producers have remained armed to fend off government eradication efforts.
Lebanon’s ‘King-Maker’ Supports Legal Cannabis
Cannabis eradication efforts in the Bekaa Valley began in the ’90s after the civil war ended. At that time, the valley was occupied by Syria, which seized it in 1976, a year after the war broke out, but Syrian and Lebanese troops collaborated in eradication campaigns. As a reward for these campaigns, in 1997 both Lebanon and Syria were removed from the U.S. “blacklist” of drug-producing countries deemed lax in narcotics enforcement. But the growers always replanted, and the hashish clans recouped their losses. Syria finally withdrew from the Bekaa in 2006.
Observing this cycle of eradication and recovery, one of Lebanon’s most influential politicians three years ago unveiled the first significant proposal for legalization. This was Walid Jumblatt, longtime patriarch of the Druze community, who led a powerful militia force during the civil war, and later emerged as Lebanon’s “king-maker.” Able to mobilize the considerable Druze vote, he was seen as the man who could make or break Lebanon’s always contentious governments. By 2014, neighboring Syria was descending into its own civil war, and there was fear of this re-igniting still-volatile Lebanon. Prosperity and (especially) winning the goodwill of the Bekaa hashish producers were suddenly a priority. In this context, Jumblatt announced his support for legalization.
Jumblatt told a local TV reporter in December 2014: “Never in my life have I smoked marijuana, but I support growing cannabis for medical use and to improve the living conditions of farmers in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Let’s legalize cannabis and regulate its cultivation.”
He also proclaimed (in Arabic) on his Twitter account: “It’s time to allow hashish to be grown and to overturn arrest warrants against people sought for doing so.”
Lebanese Cannabis Growers Arm Against ISIS
At about this same time in 2014, the ultra-brutal self-proclaimed “Islamic State,” or ISIS, which had seized much territory in Syria, began making incursions across the border into Lebanon, attempting to seize villages in the Bekaa Valley. In addition to its horrific human rights abuses, ISIS was aggressively putting cannabis fields to the torch throughout its areas of control in Syria as part of its puritanical dogma, leaving farms devastated. This was seen as a clear threat in the Bekaa.
The valley’s cannabis farmers, who had armed to resist Lebanese and Syrian eradication efforts, now started forming militias to beat back any attempt by ISIS to invade the Bekaa. In January 2015, Public Radio International visited a hashish production compound in the Bekaa, where the workers showed off their weaponry and boasted of the anti-ISIS patrols they were organizing. “This is for ISIS,” said one worker, showing off his two-foot machete.
So now, Lebanon’s military and security forces are effectively allied with the hashish lords and cannabis farmers they once opposed — even if it is inconvenient for either side to admit it.
ISIS has now been effectively broken as a serious ground force in Syria. But the Bekaa’s popular mobilization in response to the threat back in 2015 won the cannabis growers new respect in Lebanon — again, even if it remains controversial to say it out loud.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2017 annual World Drug Report, Lebanon — despite its small territory — is the world’s fourth-largest cannabis producer.
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