BEIRUT: A heated debate is taking place in Lebanon after McKinsey & Co., the global management consulting firm hired to help restructure the country’s economy, provided analysis to the government at its request on the legalization of growing medical marijuana.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri received the analysis, which isn’t binding for the Lebanese government, and informed the US ambassador to Lebanon, Elizabeth Richard, that “the Lebanese Parliament is in the process of preparing the necessary laws for legalising the cultivation of cannabis for manufacturing marijuana pharmaceuticals as in Western countries.”
Some parliamentary blocs welcomed Berri’s stance, while others chose not to comment on it. Growing cannabis in Lebanon is classified as an act punishable by law, and consumers, as well as traders, are subject to legal prosecution.
No authority in Lebanon can accurately estimate the size of land cultivated with cannabis. Northern Bekaa Valley has always been the weakness of the absent state, and this allowed the de facto authorities to exploit its lands during the civil war and in the time of the Syrian occupation, which lasted 30 years and was followed by Hezbollah’s control.
Northern Bekaa is awash with cannabis fields, owing to its fertile ground that is adequate for growing this plant.
Every year, the security authorities publicly destroy lands in which cannabis was grown. Cannabis seedlings are planted between February and March every year, and the crops are harvested in September.
Cannabis cultivation has become a profitable profession for mafias that trade in cannabis, while the farmers receive the crumbs only.
Mona, a woman from Northern Bekaa who did not want to use her full name, said the fields surrounding her house were spacious and could be cultivated with cannabis, but her values prevented her from resorting to this type of farming.
She believes that by legalizing cannabis cultivation, the government is exempting those who have planted cannabis and traded in it from punishment.
“This is against the law and does not make any sense,” she said.
A Hezbollah member of Parliament, who wished to remain anonymous, refused to say whether he was for against the legalization of cannabis cultivation.
He told Arab News: “Is the Lebanese government capable of controlling cannabis cultivation? Let’s not lie to one another: No one can control it.
“Legalizing cannabis cultivation means that the government is to control and establish a company similar to the Régie tobacco company, issue licenses for farmers and receive the crops,” he continued. “This company may receive the crops, but will it be the full amount or will part of it be sent to the black market? And will the product be sold inside Lebanon or will the state sell it to other countries?”
The Hezbollah MP added: “Allowing the cultivation of cannabis means legalizing it to those who have a license and those who don’t, and this will reflect on society and the young generation.
“There is a social stigma in Lebanon associated with cannabis consumption and cultivation—a person who consumes or grows this plant is considered a failure.
“This country is neither the US nor the Netherlands—it is Lebanon. The ideas of the Dutch society are different from ours; they enjoy absolute freedom and know how to deal with it. As for us, should we legalize cannabis just because we are going through economic difficulties? So if we were looking for financial gains, should we legalize prostitution as well? Definitely not, and these things must be discussed at a religious level first and must be socially controlled.”
Rajaa Makki, a social psychology professor of the Lebanese University, said: “Cannabis cultivation might serve the country’s economy, but it needs to be regulated to limit violations.”
From a social/psychological point of view, Makki does not believe legalizing cannabis will yield positive results in a country like Lebanon, which lacks clear laws.
She added: “An individual who resorts to drugs usually has an emotional attachment, which means she/he is ill and is subconsciously seeking to have drugs replace what she/he lacks.”
“From here, legalizing cannabis means legalizing something that is illegal and used to achieve a forbidden pleasure.”
Makki stated that she was against legalizing cannabis in the absence of awareness campaigns.
“Awareness campaigns are an integral part of the process, especially at the social psychological level, and we are going to need more rehabilitation and treatment centers,” she said.
Those who are pro-cannabis cultivation claim that legalizing it will bring Lebanon money, while economists believe this step would contribute to a GDP growth rate of 0.5 percent.
Economist Louis Hobeika explained that the Lebanese government believes legalizing cannabis will control its cultivation and provide the country with legitimate income.
He added: “I am against it though, because the prices of the substance extracted from marijuana to be used for medical purposes are not globally high. Many countries are in this business and we are not inventing anything that can compete with their medical marijuana products.
“In addition to that, there is poor demand for medical marijuana, and there is an illusion that legalizing cannabis will earn Lebanon billions of dollars.”
He also said: “Who in Lebanon can control cannabis cultivation and who can guarantee that the business does not result in producing narcotics? The government cannot control it and a mafia that funds cannabis, probably in cooperation with the government, will be born, and we will find ourselves in a bigger problem.”
Hobeika asked: “Does Lebanon enforce traffic or construction laws as it should? What do you think would be the case for the law of cannabis cultivation?”
He stressed that it is necessary to help farmers in Northern Bekaa — and everyone who cultivates cannabis — find an alternative crop that generates revenue.
“Why don’t we grow flowers instead of importing them?” he suggested. “Or maybe exotic fruits—yes, they need additional efforts compared to cannabis cultivation as well as a new attitude, but these are positive products that do not harm our children.”
Pharmacist Samer Sobra was surprised how cannabis is to be used for medical purposes in Lebanon.
He said: “Cannabis in Lebanon is currently sold as a narcotic substance and not used for manufacturing pharmaceuticals. The substance extracted from cannabis for medical use is cannabidiol (CBD). It is used for manufacturing cough medicines, mood regulators, and relaxants in specialized labs. These medicines are not manufactured in Lebanon but imported from abroad.
“In Lebanon, there isn’t a high demand for these medicines which include CBD in their formula,” he added. “I believe it would be more profitable for Lebanon’s economy to sell the substance to other countries.”
An earlier version of this article stated that consulting firm McKinsey & Co. had recommended that Lebanon legalize the growing of medical marijuana. In fact, the firm had provided an analysis that pointed to the economic advantages of doing so. The wording of the above text has been changed to reflect the fact that McKinsey was not making an explicit recommendation to the Lebanese government.