Cannabis cultivation could boost Lebanon's economy, report says

The report has received an enthusiastic welcome from the powerful clans that control the valley’s rich narcotic crop.
Wednesday 18/07/2018
A Syrian refugee smells a cannabis bud while resting during the harvest in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon October 19, 2015. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee smells a cannabis bud while resting during the harvest in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon October 19, 2015. (Reuters)

TUNIS - A report on possible ways to revitalise Lebanon’s economy has thrust the country’s anarchic Bekaa valley into the spotlight by mooting its rich cannabis crop as an economic lifeline.

Global consulting firm McKinsey & Co’s thousand page report contains a wealth of recommendations to bolster Lebanon’s economy, ranging from the creation of a wealth-management and investment-banking hub to investing in avocado production. However, it is the report’s suggestion that the country’s rich cannabis crop be exported for medicinal use that has garnered the most headlines and divided Lebanese political opinion.

Unsurprisingly, the report has received an enthusiastic welcome from the powerful clans that control the valley’s rich narcotic crop. However, Hezbollah, which profits from the valley’s lawlessness and easy access to the Syrian war, is wary of the government regulation that would come with the legalised trade.

Commenting on the report on Tuesday, Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said that the country had decided to legalise the drug's production for medicinal use. However, with no government in place, and Hezbollah's support unlikely, how and when this might happen is unclear. 

Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, close to the Syrian border, has a history of tribal violence and criminality long predating the Syrian conflict. In the 1980s, at the height of Lebanon’s civil war, cannabis production accounted for an estimated 2,000 tonnes a year leaving by illegal ports along the country’s coast.

After a lull following the cessation of hostilities, the Syrian civil war proved a fresh boon to cannabis growers within the Bekaa. Following the redeployment of Lebanese forces to the border, full cannabis production resumed, with local farmers telling the Guardian that production had increased by 50% since 2012.  

In 2017, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, cannabis production in the Bekaa generated around $175 million-$200 million a year, exporting primarily to Europe, the Gulf, Africa and North America. Last year, Lebanon was the third largest exporter of cannabis resin in the world behind Morocco, Mexico and Nigeria.

However, as cannabis production has grown, so too has the arms and influence of the clans and militias who control it, a situation that continues to undermine the Lebanese central state and, by extension, strengthens Hezbollah’s hand within the valley.

Many of the clans that benefit from cannabis naturally support the suggestions outlined in the McKinsey report. 

Qassem Tlaiss, who claimed to speak on behalf of the Bekaa clans that grow cannabis, told The Guardian: “They totally agree with it, (the legalisation and export of the crop). It’s a serious step towards reforming the Lebanese economy.”

Tlaiss, who said he is not personally involved in cannabis production, explained that the people of the Bekaa, long neglected by Beirut, have little choice but to seek employment in the drug trade. Furthermore, the sporadic gun battles between the farmers and the government seeking to reassert control have only served to impoverish the people further, he said.

In June, one of those raids produced the largest drugs busts in the country’s history, with Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces seizing 15 tonnes of the crop from farmers in the Baalbek province of the Bekaa Valley.

However, Tlaiss is doubtful that Hezbollah truly supports legalising the drug. “Hezbollah is against it. They want to keep this region poor so they can attract young men to fight for them,” he said. “They are holding the joints of Lebanese politics and they can do whatever they want.”

Despite Tlaiss’ scepticism, McKinsey’s recommendations have received some support in government.

Caretaker Economy and Trade Minister Raed Khoury told Bloomberg that the quality Lebanon has is among “the best in the world,” adding that the country could legalise cultivation and export the narcotic for medicinal treatments, potentially translating into a billion-dollar industry.

The need to halt Lebanon’s economic slide is acute. Public debt stands at the equivalent of 150% of economic output, which the International Monetary Fund sees as reaching 180% in five years. That puts Lebanon in the same league as Japan and Greece.

Foreign reserves -- currently a record $43 billion – have enabled Lebanon’s local currency to survive the various political storms that have periodically hit it, as well as the arrival of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

However, a failing infrastructure, a collapsed power sector and endemic corruption have left Lebanon in need of an economic overhaul.