Lebanon Pulse

Lebanon looks for economic lift from cannabis

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Article Summary
Lebanon’s parliament is set to discuss a bill to legalize the production of industrial hemp as part of efforts to boost the country’s ailing economy.

BEIRUT — On July 25, Lebanese Forces parliamentarian Antoine Habchi handed the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a bill to amend Lebanon's drug laws to legalize industrial hemp as an alternative crop for Lebanese farmers.

According to lawmakers present, Berri said during the weekly parliament session July 25 that he had reviewed several studies about the topic and that he would continue looking into them and seek to create a special unit to supervise cannabis farming.

On July 18, Berri told US Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard that Lebanon is also examining legislation to legalize the production of cannabis for medicinal purposes, as some European countries and US states have done.

Habchi told Al-Monitor that the bill “requires discussion in parliament, and perhaps we can then improve people’s lives.” The bill has yet to be put on the parliament’s agenda, Habchi added.

Head of the Lebanese Farmers Association Antoine el-Howayek told Al-Monitor, “There is a huge difference" between cannabis sativa and industrial hemp, which the state seeks to legalize.

Habchi said during a parliament session July 23 that under the bill, the Cabinet will be empowered to grant qualified pharmaceutical companies production permits. The companies then grant growers permission to plant the cannabis under the supervision of an oversight unit. He added that the bill will solve the problem of illegal cannabis trade.

Economy Minister Raed Khoury said at the Arab Economic Forum July 13 that McKinsey, the international consultancy company Lebanon tasked with studying how to boost the deteriorating Lebanese economy, proposed “establishing areas for growing cannabis for medicinal purposes as part of a comprehensive organizational and legal framework.”

In a statement to Bloomberg July 6, Khoury said, “Its production is expected to give Lebanon returns worth $1 billion per year.”

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Lebanon is already the world's third largest exporter of cannabis resin. Thousands of families in Lebanon live from growing cannabis as their only source of income, although security forces destroy many of the crops in yearly sweeps. 

A grower told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “When I planted potatoes, I suffered financial losses because sometimes, traders would buy them for low prices or not at all. Imported potatoes are all over the market, and the state does not support us by promoting our crops. For that reason, I turned to growing cannabis.”

Bassam Hamdar, the director of the Economics Department at the American University of Science and Technology, told Al-Monitor, “Cannabis growing flourished in the 1960s, before the mandate of President Fouad Chehab and during the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. The state then banned this crop and promised to provide farmers with alternatives like aloe vera and other crops used in cosmetics. The project failed because its returns were much less than those of growing cannabis. Cannabis growing bounced back after the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011.”

He went on, “Before legalizing growing cannabis, a strict committee granting oversight and control powers should be established. Otherwise, I object to the bill.”

Hamdar pointed out, “In 2016, growers planted 200,000 dunams of cannabis in the Bekaa. Will the government be able to plant this whole area?”

Head of the National Social Health Association and former parliament member Ismail Sukariya told Al-Monitor, “Cannabis is medically used to produce analgesics and narcotics. All the talk about its effect in fighting cancer is not scientifically proven. The plant has not taken up sufficient and serious space in manufacturing medication worldwide.”

Mohammad Chamseddine, a researcher with the Beirut-based research and statistics company Information International, told Al-Monitor, “Around 20,000 hectares of land are planted with cannabis yearly. This area might expand or shrink depending on security activities. If crops are not destroyed, there will be 8,000 tons per year on average, and the revenue of the grower per dunam (a quarter acre) would range from $1,600 to $2,000, or $600 million roughly. Traders in Lebanon might make up to $2 billion per year.”

Hanan Hamdan, a Beirut-based journalist, reports on social and economic issues for local and international media outlets, among them Al Modon, Raseef22 and Legal Agenda. She holds master's degrees in finance and political science.

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