Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Cannabis Cultivation in the Middle East: Problem or Solution?

Cannabis cultivation in the Middle East persists as a problem rather than a solution, despite the legalization or tolerance observed in some countries.

Cannabis Cultivation in the Middle East
This picture taken on July 29, 2020 shows a view of a cannabis plant in the village of Yamouneh in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. JOSEPH EID / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Many people are of the opinion that the cultivation and export of cannabis could potentially serve as a remedy for the economic challenges facing Middle Eastern countries.

For instance, in 2020, Lebanon took the step of legalizing cannabis cultivation, whereas Syrian authorities chose to overlook this practice without any intention of legalizing it.

Conversely, countries such as Egypt and Jordan have maintained their opposition to the cultivation and promotion of cannabis, thereby transforming the issue into a source of security tensions within their borders. It is worth noting that despite the legalization or tolerance observed in Lebanon and Syria, the cultivation of cannabis has persisted as a problem rather than a solution.

Legalization of cannabis cultivation in Lebanon

In April 2020, during the onset of the Lebanese financial crisis and about a month after Lebanon announced its default on public debt securities, the Lebanese Parliament passed a law legalizing and regulating the cultivation of cannabis, locally known as hashish, for medical and industrial use.

However, even before the law was enacted, the cultivation of cannabis had been an established practice, overlooked by security services despite being considered illegal, and has historically remained a vital financial resource for many residents of the Lebanese Bekaa Valley. While some estimates placed the annual production value of the sector at around $800 million, others suggested it to be approximately $1.5 billion, equivalent to around 7 per cent of the volume of the legal and declared economy.

The purpose of the 2020 law was not to initiate the cultivation of cannabis, but rather to regulate and legalize an already prevalent practice. The objective was to utilize a portion of the revenue generated from this industry in the form of taxes for the benefit of the public treasury, thereby transforming it from a problem and legal violation tolerated locally into a solution for public financial crises and currency scarcity.

Notably, the timing of the legislation coincided with Lebanon’s financial collapse, emphasizing the need for such measures.

Although the law restricted cannabis cultivation to medical and industrial purposes, legislators were aware that the crop would inevitably find its way into both domestic and foreign recreational markets. As Lebanese cannabis was already making its way to these markets despite being illegal, legalizing its cultivation for “medical and industrial purposes” would facilitate its sale and circulation for recreational use, given the prevalence of an unregulated and difficult-to-control shadow economy.

Failure to regulate cannabis cultivation post-legalization

The Lebanese state, which struggled to combat cannabis cultivation prior to 2020, has thus far been unable to effectively organize and legalize the crop, even after the enactment of the new law. As per this legislation, a regulatory body was expected to oversee the sector and issue licenses for cannabis cultivation. This would enable the state to regulate the export and sale of cannabis to licensed entities, and collect fees and taxes from the farmers involved.

However, three years after the issuance of the law, none of its provisions have been implemented, and the regulatory body that was supposed to oversee the sector has not been established. The state’s failure to regulate the practice resulted in the spread and abuse of cannabis cultivation, and what had been intended as a means to transform a problem into a solution only made matters worse.

It doesn’t take much to understand why attempts to regulate cannabis cultivation, even with the new law, failed. Those growing the substance in the Bekaa region serve as a popular support base for several political parties represented in the Lebanese Parliament. This group of farmers had no interest in abiding by new regulations and restrictions on the sector, especially those related to production licenses, taxes and fees. Moreover, public administrations, weakened by financial constraints, had little capacity to enforce complex regulations and oversight.

Furthermore, some farmers point out that the trade and export of cannabis are currently conducted in an unregulated and illegal manner by influential individuals who hold sway over official decisions. This influential group has no interest in seeing the sector regulated or legalizing the export process transparently and publicly. Rather, wholesale traders benefit from keeping the sector unregulated, which enables them to maintain a monopoly on cannabis purchases from the local market by leveraging their influence.

Hence, the same reasons that previously prevented the state from combating cannabis cultivation have now led to its failure to regulate the sector after legalization. In both cases, the state’s failure, poor governance, political intervention, and partiality toward specific groups all played a role.

Currently, cannabis cultivation in the Bekaa Valley poses a significant challenge for the state as it lacks the required resources to effectively regulate the practice as stipulated by the law. In addition, there is insufficient cooperation from the community to facilitate the regulatory process.

At the same time, the state cannot combat unregulated cannabis cultivation without negatively impacting large segments of the rural population in the Bekaa Valley who rely on the income generated from the crop for their livelihoods. It’s worth noting that transitioning to alternative crops would require years of investment, training and access to new markets, which the state currently lacks the capacity to undertake.

Political disputes due to the failure to regulate the sector

The state’s failure to regulate the sector effectively has given rise to political tensions and accusations in recent years. Today, many political parties accuse the Shiite duo, namely Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, of providing political cover for the illegal cannabis trade.

This claim is often reinforced by the two organizations’ strong security presence in the northern Bekaa region, where cannabis cultivation is widespread. Moreover, these accusations are sometimes linked to allegations against the party and the Syrian regime, suggesting their involvement in promoting the production and export of other types of drugs to Gulf states.

However, Hezbollah vehemently denies any connection to these activities and stresses that it did not vote in favor of the law legalizing cannabis cultivation in 2020. The party considers trading, cultivating and using this substance as forbidden according to its religious ideology.

The Syrian regime turns a blind eye

The issue of drug cultivation extends beyond Lebanon and has also been prevalent in various coastal and southern regions of Syria due to the Syrian crisis. Similar to the situation in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Syrian farmers have benefited from the negligence of Syrian security forces or the protection provided by local militias loyal to the regime.

It is likely that the regime intentionally turned a blind eye to this phenomenon, recognizing it as a solution and significant financial resource for certain social segments within its areas of influence. Additionally, if the product is exported, it can generate valuable foreign currency.

However, cannabis cultivation is not limited to regime-controlled areas alone; the Syrian Democratic Forces, which hold sway over northeastern Syria, have also faced accusations of encouraging cannabis cultivation within their territories.

Over time, the issue has acquired broader political dimensions, with the Syrian regime being accused of organizing drug exports to Gulf countries. Allegations suggest that this serves the dual purpose of destabilizing the security of these countries and providing the regime with necessary financial resources. Similar to Lebanon, the initial assumption that drug cultivation could be an economic solution has proven to be misguided.

Instead, it has become a security concern as armed groups and criminal gangs emerged alongside the production and cultivation of drugs, exacerbating the spread of security turmoil.

Egypt and Jordan: Determined to combat the phenomenon

In Egypt and Jordan, unlike Syria and Lebanon, the cultivation of cannabis has been largely contained due to strict security measures.

However, even limited cannabis cultivation in rural areas has led to clashes and security tensions with the authorities who are actively combating the production, transportation and sale of the substance. In both countries, drug smuggling groups have diversified their activities to include other substances such as opium and bango, further exacerbating the negative consequences of their operations.

It is evident that the vast majority of religious authorities across the Middle East are in consensus on prohibiting the consumption and cultivation of cannabis. This consensus has prevented most countries in the region from considering the legalization of cannabis cultivation, as witnessed in Lebanon.

Even in Lebanon’s case, the law to legalize this agriculture was only approved under the weight of a severe financial crisis and after the practice had already grown widespread.

Given these circumstances, it may not be realistic to expect this issue to be promptly addressed in other Middle Eastern countries through attempts to regulate cannabis cultivation, in light of Lebanon’s failure, and the challenge is likely to persist in the region.

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