Once Switzerland of the Mideast, Will Beirut Be the Amsterdam of This Region?

Published January 24th, 2019 - 11:21 GMT
One is the massive local and global demand for hashish, currently being supplied by what Mansour said was an estimated 480 tons of hashish produced in Lebanon in the past seven years. (Shutterstock)
One is the massive local and global demand for hashish, currently being supplied by what Mansour said was an estimated 480 tons of hashish produced in Lebanon in the past seven years. (Shutterstock)

Despite differing views over the way a future legal cannabis sector in Lebanon should be managed, lawmakers Wednesday all agreed Beirut isn’t going to be the Amsterdam of the Middle East anytime soon.

MP Yassine Jaber, who heads the parliamentary subcommittee tasked with studying the legalization of cannabis cultivation, chaired a public meeting at Parliament with agriculture and security experts to clarify that MPs are not seeking to legalize the crop’s recreational use, like a select few Western countries have.

Lawmakers are instead studying how to legalize the cultivation of nonpsychoactive strains of cannabis for medicinal and industrial use, and are hopeful that the legalization of some form of cannabis production would be a way to turn farmers in the impoverished Bekaa Valley away from illicit cultivation of the crop.

Col. Henry Mansour, the head of the Internal Security Forces’ Office for Combating Drugs, told the some 20 MPs who attended that 43 square kilometers had been planted with cannabis last season.

But it became clear at the session that the crops being considered to drive the legal cannabis market are different than those already growing in the Bekaa Valley, and are not even currently present in Lebanon.

Dr. Mohammad Farran, a professor of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, explained that the Lebanese plants currently used to illicitly produce hashish have high amounts of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol.

By contrast, medicinal plants generally have a high canabidiol content and low THC, and the cannabis plants used for industry, known as hemp, have only minute concentrations of both substances.

MPs are in essence proposing the creation of a new market with an alternative crop rather than legalizing an existing market, despite Lebanon’s history of failed crop-substitution programs, including an attempt to cultivate saffron instead of cannabis.

Other issues also went unaddressed at the panel.

One is the massive local and global demand for hashish, currently being supplied by what Mansour said was an estimated 480 tons of hashish produced in Lebanon in the past seven years.

Nadya Mikdashi, the director of Skoun, an advocacy and drug treatment group, also noted that focusing on cultivating cannabis only for export would fail to address the social issues stemming from the criminalization of drug use in Lebanon.

According to Mansour, 3,500 people were arrested last year on drug charges, which accounted for 40 percent of all arrests.

“You have to tie this progressive business decision to modern, progressive decisions on health, society and criminal justice,” Mikdashi told The Daily Star, suggesting that lawmakers should move to decriminalize drug use.

The session also illuminated the high cost of establishing the infrastructure, legal framework and oversight agencies necessary to regulate a market fit to produce medicine that is up to Western standards.

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“Do farmers have the expertise? And how would the state be able to assure European standards?” asked Carol Abi Kara, the head of the Syndicate of Pharmaceutical Industries.

According to Farran, initial investment in the crop would need to be very high, at about $10,000 per thousand square meters.

Caretaker Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan scoffed at this.

“Which farmer has $100,000 in capital for 10 dunams?” he said.

From a scientific perspective alone, Farran said Lebanon was a “perfect” location to grow nonpsychoactive cannabis, especially in the Bekaa Valley. This prompted one lawmaker to joke to Hajj Hasan, who is also an MP representing Baalbeck, “Who would’ve thought, Dr. Hussein, it grows best in your area?”

Farran suggested that the impression among many in the West that Lebanese hashish is of a high quality would help boost a local sector.

The professor pointed out that hemp was already used across a range of productive sectors, from textiles to the door panels of cars built by BMW and Mercedes.

He said that the plants fibers could be also used to produce concrete sustainably at a competitive cost - especially pertinent to Lebanon given the country’s plan to benefit from Syria’s reconstruction.

On the medical side, studies continue to prove the healing and symptom-managing properties of cannabis, be it for nerve diseases like Parkinson’s, various types of cancer and a host of nonlife-threatening issues like anxiety.

Many MPs had questions about the economic feasibility of producing the crop.

While Farran said he had estimates, he lamented he had not been able to carry out a ground study on the matter - for which AUB gave him a $34,000 grant - because Lebanese Customs had prevented a shipment of seeds from coming in, despite approval form the Interior, Health and Agriculture ministries. “We call on the government, when it is formed, to help facilitate the entry. I still have the grant,” Farran said.

“A bit of hashish and the Cabinet will be formed,” Hajj Hasan quipped.

By Timour Azhari

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