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Lebanon Considering Legalizing Medical Cannabis

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Workers cultivate plants at a cannabis plantation in the village of Yammouneh in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley on July 23, 2018. The sun-soaked cannabis fields stretch to the horizon, just out of reach of a nearby army checkpoint. Its production is lucrative in Lebanon, but growers fear legalising its medical use could slash profits. Photo AFP

Lebanon’s Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri announced on 18 July 2018 that the government is considering a draft law to legalize cannabis cultivation for medical purposes.

Lebanon is not only famous for its food and natural diversity but also for its high-quality cannabis, grown in the agricultural lands of the Beqaa Valley, on the Syrian border. Although cannabis production has been prohibited since 1926 during the French Mandate and its cultivation since 1992, poverty pushed many farmers to grow cannabis again from 2001, under the protection of the Shia armed group and political party Hezbollah, which is prominent in the area.

Hezbollah has not yet commented on the possible legalization, but it could affect the group’s recruitment of young people in the cultivation areas, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in an August 2018 article: ‘Given the level of discontent from the Shiite tribes toward Hezbollah, the legalization of cannabis cultivation could serve as a lure for Hezbollah members to quit the organization and generate an income by growing hashish.’

The decision could also have an impact on the wider Lebanese economy, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Lebanon in its 2018 report as the world’s third main source of cannabis resin seized by national authorities in 2016, just behind Morocco and Afghanistan.

Antoine Habchi, a Lebanese Forces MP from the Beqaa Valley who submitted the proposed law, told Middle East Eye, “We need to find a way to make sure that farmers make money off cannabis production in a legal way. Currently, only the traders, who benefit from political protections, reap the benefits.” The trade would be supervised by the Department of Narcotics at the Ministry of Health, which would distribute licenses approved by the government to private companies that would then buy directly from the farmers.

The proposal could provide a financial lifeline for impoverished farmers. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 20 per cent of heads of households engaged in agriculture are highly vulnerable. Women farmers constitute some 9 per cent of the total farmers. Women, who are involved mainly in the production of dairy products, preserves and subsistence farming, are more likely to be poor than their male counterparts. Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Lebanon’s economic growth was around 10 per cent. However, it is forecast to be less than 2 per cent in 2018, with a fiscal deficit ranging from 7-10 per cent. Unemployment is over 30 per cent and poverty has increased more than two thirds since 2011, according to the United Nations Development Program.

The parliament’s decision to consider legalizing cannabis came after it hired the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co for six months in January 2018 to restructure an economy that is overly reliant on remittances and banking, and is struggling with high unemployment. The firm issued a report to the government covering a number of economic initiatives, including legalizing cannabis, boosting tourism, creating a banking hub and investing in avocado production. But it was the suggestion to legalize cannabis cultivation that caught the most attention.

“The quality [of the cannabis] we have is one of the best in the world,” Economy and Trade Minister, Raed Khoury, told Bloomberg, adding that the industry could be worth $1 billion to Lebanon. A McKinsey spokesperson told Business Insider that the Lebanese government asked McKinsey to evaluate the impact of cannabis legalization as part of a suite of over 150 initiatives to boost the country’s economy but did not explicitly recommend legalizing medical cannabis.

Legalization has proven successful in other countries, such as Italy, which legalized hemp cultivation for non-pharmaceutical purposes in 2016. The law allows cultivation for non-pharmaceutical use of plants with up to 0.2 per cent of the psychoactive compound THC. Italians have taken advantage of the change in the law to produce not only hemp ricotta and environmentally friendly bricks but also hemp pasta and biscuits, which has revitalized the country’s economy.

Legalization for medical purposes could have a real impact in Lebanon, not only economically but also health wise. The Lebanese American University (LAU) is authorized by the Ministry of Health to study the medical effects of cannabis, which the university hopes will eventually lead to the establishment of the Lebanese Medical Cannabis Center within its facilities. There are currently ten research centres studying medical cannabis in the world. LAU’s centre would be the first in the Middle East.

But the medical properties of Lebanese cannabis already speak for themselves, according to LAU’s pharmacologist Mohammad Mroueh. He told the Daily Star, “You know what they say about it, that it’s of very high quality. We have more than one strain – indicia, sativa and hybrid – and the hybrid, we believe, is really special: it has a particular medical composition different from that of any other plant.”

In an interview with Fanack, Mroueh added, “For now, we have legal samples that we turned into oil in order to test them on cancer cells. [They] also worked on leukemia cells and [have] anti-inflammatory purposes almost similar to cortisone. What we need to do now are pre-clinic tests to see what doses are necessary.”

For Mroueh, it is obvious that “we need to make use of this plant in medicine”. He is now waiting for approval from the government to move forward with his tests. But one thing is certain: all signs point towards positive incitements from the legal use of medicinal cannabis in Lebanon.

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