Debt-Stricken Lebanon Becomes First Arab Country To Legalize Cannabis Growth

Lebanon, the tiny Mediterranean country with hugely outsized debt, has become the first country in the Middle East to legalize the growing of cannabis in an unlikely precedent.

The Lebanese Parliament approved a law on Tuesday which allows its growth for medicinal and industrial use, which ironically enough was strongly recommended by economic advisers as a way to boost the country's troubled economy by regulating what was reportedly already a booming but illicit trade, especially in the Bekaa Valley.

Cannabis plantation in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. AFP via Getty

Lebanon's national newspaper The Daily Star linked the move directly to the country's recent debt woes:

Although it is illegal, Lebanon has long been one of the world's biggest producers of hashish.

Lawmakers have long been trying to legalize cannabis production for medical use. They argue it would pump revenue into the struggling economy, currently in its worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

In March, Lebanon announced it would suspend payments of all the maturing Eurobonds in foreign currency in order to safeguard its foreign currency reserves.

Raed Khoury, Lebanon's former caretaker minister for economy and trade, went so far as to brag in a July 2018 interview with Bloomberg that Lebanese marijuana "is one of the best in the world" in terms of quality.

Crucially, the legislation does not allow for recreational use of marijuana among citizens, but brings its cultivation under the regulation of the state, primarily for medicinal exports, CBD oils, and pharmaceutical and industrial purposes. 

Firas Maksad, a foreign policy analyst and professor at George Washington University, told UAE's The National of cannabis growth's legalization: “If regulated and taxed properly, this is a net positive for Lebanon.”

“It is important to note that Lebanon spent many millions of foreign assistance dollars in the nineties to fight cannabis farming in the Bekaa,” Maksad added, explaining that Hezbollah's opposition to legalization stemmed from wanting to maintain control of trafficking.

The Shia political movement and paramilitary organization essentially runs things in the Bekaa, and publicly opposed the legislation of Islamic grounds.

And Lebanon's deputy parliament speaker Elie Ferzli recently told Al-Monitor: “The global consultancy firm McKinsey suggested, in a study about setting a vision for Lebanon’s economy to grow its GDP and create jobs through selecting productive sectors, that legalizing the cultivation of cannabis would bring in up to $1 billion per year in revenue for the government.”