Lebanon has legalised cannabis growing, but its political class are muscling in on small farmers

Lebanon has legalised cannabis growing, but its political class are muscling in on small farmers
Comment: Eyeing a $1 billion market, Lebanon's elites are looking to exploit the cannabis cultivation industry, cutting existing small-scale farmers out of the deal, writes Mat Nashed.
4 min read
27 Apr, 2020
Lebanon has cultivated cannabis for at least 100 years [AFP]
Lebanon is set to become the first Arab country to legalise the growing and export of medical cannabis in hopes of rescuing the economy - at least that's the stated objective.

To be fair, the industry does have the potential to generate $1 billion, according to a report by the American consultancy firm McKinsey and Company. That report - commissioned by the Lebanese government in 2018 - had some MPs salivating at the prospect of fattening their pockets.

But with inflation rising and the Lebanese lira in free fall, politicians now argue that cannabis could bring in much needed foreign revenue to restore the value of the currency on the black market.

That's a sound plan in theory, but not in practice. Just consider that Lebanon boasts one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in the globe due to failed governance, a labyrinth of political nepotism and rampant graft within the public sector.

Those issues now risk eliminating fair competition in the cannabis market. But political elites still insist that cannabis exports will lift thousands of people out of poverty. The problem: They're backing a law designed to do just the opposite. 

Double standard

Lebanese farmers have cultivated cannabis for more than a century, generating as much as 80 percent of the world's supply during the country's 15-year-civil war (1975-1990).

Licences will be distributed to the highest bidding tycoons regardless if they follow industry protocol

By 1994, Washington pressured Damascus - then an occupying power in Lebanon - to outlaw the trade. Criminalisation has resulted in armed farmers violently clashing with law enforcement until the present day.

But rather than end those bouts for good, parliament still maintains that growing cannabis for recreational use should be outlawed.

More absurd, the law drafted to regulate the market stipulates that those with a criminal record or warranted for arrest won't be eligible to obtain a licence to grow medical cannabis. That makes it practically impossible for farmers to integrate into the formal market.

"There are about 5,000 arrest warrants issued a year against farmers that grow hashish in the Bekaa Valley, so none of them will be able to profit from legalisation of export," said Karim Nammor, a lawyer who specialises in drug policy with the Lebanese NGO Legal Agenda.

"Another 3,000 to 4,000 people are arrested annually for drug use. This is a huge number for a country of only 6 million people," he added.

The government, for their part, claims that it will soon vote on a separate amnesty bill that will allow thousands of farmers to participate in the formal market. But Nammor says that farmers warranted for arrest probably won't get off the hook.

Read more: 'There's no more place for luxury': Lebanese persevere as country's economy worsens

Big money

The government hasn't consulted with Bekaa farmers about its grand new plan, leaving communities to believe that they are being blatantly ignored.

Saada Allaw, a lawyer with the Legal Agenda who grew up in the Bekaa Valley says the government shouldn't assume that everyone in the region wants to grow drugs since many farmers wish to cultivate other goods if given a choice. She added that youth should have opportunities to pursue other careers.

"The government is giving out permits to grow cannabis before building good quality public schools and hospitals in the area," she said.

There is also risk that national and multinational companies could uproot communities that have lived on public land for generations. That's certainly been the pattern across the Global South for decades.

Equally troubling, the government intends to establish a committee tasked with regulating the market and granting licences to companies. The issue is that the committee will be financed from the fees it charges for the permits it hands out.

The draft law must include language that favours local farmers over big firms

This arrangement creates a clear conflict of interest, whereby licences will be distributed to the highest bidding tycoons regardless if they follow industry protocol.  And even if there is a set fee to obtain a licence, hefty bribes will surely be offered under the table.  

That's why the draft law must include language that favours local farmers over big firms. The committee also shouldn't depend on levying licence holders for funding. As a government conceived institution, the state should finance the committee so it can maintain a semblance of autonomy to govern the market. 

These measures are imperative to limit corruption. Otherwise, Lebanon's political elites will devour the profits of a trade it has scorned for so long. 

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. 

Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.