The road out of Beirut winds steeply into the hills.
The air clears as we punch through the smog which hangs over the Lebanese capital.
Leaving the Mediterranean coast behind, I am on a quest to find what some believe is a solution, in part at least, to Lebanon‘s economic crisis: cannabis.
The story behind this country’s ‘green gold’ stretches back over a hundred years and it’s a story of confusion, contradiction and a gun or two.
The village of Yammoune sits in a lush green valley to the northeast of Beirut.
It’s near the stunning Roman ruins at Baalbek and not far from Lebanon’s border with Syria.
In a world without coronavirus, without a financial crisis and without a war in Syria, the village would be a must-do on Lebanon’s tourist trail.
The road cuts through a pass in the snow-topped mountains to reveal a sea of green in the valley below.
“Hashish!” the driver announces.
Behind the wheel is the village mayor, Talal Shreif. I’m his guest for the day. He wants to show me why he thinks the fields all around us can help to save Lebanon’s economy.
“It could be good for most of the people in Bekaa Valley and for the economy of Lebanon,” Mr Shreif says.
He is talking about the legalisation of cannabis production.
Lebanon is in the midst of a deep financial crisis. “A crisis that is unseen worldwide,” the country’s own economy minister told me this past week.
It is all the consequence of decades of economic mismanagement and political corruption exacerbated now by COVID-19.
One of the problems is that Lebanon has become almost entirely dependent on imports. It produces next-to-nothing anymore. And imports are now eye-wateringly expensive.
Among the government’s messages to its people is a call to become more self-sufficient, literally.
At the same time as calling for a boost to the domestic agriculture sector they have called for people to grow their own.
Vegetables? Yes. But what about something that’s easier to grow and already here in abundance?
Lebanon is the world’s third largest producer of cannabis in marijuana resin form. After Morocco and Afghanistan, this tiny Middle Eastern country produces 6% of the global total.
It achieves this status as number three globally despite the fact that, at the moment, it is illegal to grow, buy, sell or use any form of cannabis.
Because it’s illegal, there are no tax revenues generated from it and there is no benefit to the macro economy of Lebanon.
The cannabis production industry exists in Lebanon through a combination of blind eyes, backhanders, and sometimes, guns.
“The people plant [the cannabis] and they don’t care about the government. And if the government comes to destroy the fields, the people all with their guns [are] against the government,” the mayor explains as we drive between two vast fields of marijuana.
“Like the Wild West?” I ask. “Yes…” he laughs.
We pass yellow flags emblazoned with an image of a Kalashnikov rifle. This is Hezbollah country. The Iranian-backed religious, political and paramilitary movement is a proscribed terror group in Western eyes.
But in these parts of rural Lebanon it is a nationalist resistance movement and a positive force in local politics.
We park up and the mayor walks me into one of the fields for a closer look at the weed.
The medicinal benefits of cannabis, when prescribed by a doctor, are backed by evidence globally.
And there are examples all over the world of regional economies being boosted by legalising the regulated production of cannabis – from Colorado to the UK.
The mayor is convinced that if the government in Lebanon listened to him and the farmers of this valley, everyone would benefit.
“You can get the best thread for making clothes. You can get the best rope out of it. You can get cellulose out of it.
“You can get the best paper out of it. You can get more than 40 substances. And the oil, which is cholesterol free!” he says.
At the moment the only use the farmers get out of the plant is for smoking. The mayor explains that they don’t have the knowledge.
But with education and investment, this could become a key industry with opportunities well beyond the taboos usually associated with marijuana.
The climate here in the Bekaa Valley is perfect for growing marijuana, and it takes very little looking after.
“The risk is high to cultivate potato. The risk for [the farmer] in planting hashish is zero,” the mayor tells me.
Last month Lebanese President Michel Aoun signed an order paving the way for a change in the country’s legislation. If the bill passes through parliament then the production of cannabis could be allowed.
But for the moment, the whole plan is confused and far from concluded.
To start with, the type of plant the government is proposing to be legalised is not the same variety the farmers currently sow – they are proposing to legalise a different plant in the cannabis family.
Perhaps more problematic though, is that it’s being suggested that the law will not allow anyone who currently grows cannabis illegally to be involved in future legal production.
So instead of benefiting from a change in the law, the farmers who rely on the plant for their livelihood would be out of a job.
The bill’s passage through parliament could be tricky. Some politicians, including those representing Hezbollah, are against the idea of legalising a different plant the legislation proposes.
There is also suspicion that some political groups benefit financially from the illegal status quo.
If it were all legalised, their siphon would dry up.
There is a broad and deep-rooted problem of corruption in Lebanon.
Can the country really turn an illegal drugs trade into a multi-billion dollar business that genuinely fuels the economy rather than filling the pockets of a few?
Back down the winding road to Beirut, Lebanon’s economy minister Raoul Nehme has agreed to meet me.
He is a busy man – one of a cabinet of technocrats appointed five months ago in an attempt to reform politics and recover the economy.
Mr Nehme is a key player in the government’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an international bailout.
He won’t be drawn on suggestions that the talks are at a stalemate. He insists that eventually, once Lebanese politicians have resolved their differences over the size of their deficit and how to reform their political system, the chance of a deal with the IMF is “100%”.
But what about cannabis? He smiles.
“It is one piece of a whole economic plan. If Lebanon doesn’t go from a rentier economy to a productive economy in agriculture, in agro-industry, in industry and in knowledge economy we will not get out of the crisis we are in.”
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