Lebanon may legalize medicinal marijuana

Lebanon is considering legalizing medicinal marijuana in an attempt to lift the country's struggling economy. CNN's Ben Wedeman reports.

Posted: Aug 9, 2018 6:43 AM
Updated: Aug 9, 2018 6:47 AM

The farmer plucks a cannabis flower from a long stalk. He presses it against his nose, inhales deeply and begins to extol the therapeutic -- if not necessarily scientific -- properties of his crop.

"Smell this. It smells like heaven," says Abu Salim, who doesn't want his real name used for security reasons. "This is the herb of happiness. My friend says that when he smokes a joint, his wife becomes a princess, the world shines, and life is beautiful!"

This is part of the heartland of Lebanese farming, once considered the breadbasket of the Middle East. It is also home to some of the region's most conservative and controversial political groups.

An expanse of cannabis -- almost the size of three soccer fields -- stretches out in front of Abu Salim. Harvesting season hasn't started yet, but the country has recently trained its sights on fields like these. Heeding the advice of international consulting group McKinsey, Lebanon's parliament is preparing to legalize medicinal cannabis and its cultivation. It's meant to pave the way to a nearly $800 million industry, according to Economy Minister Raed Khoury, and could serve as a quick fix for some of the country's many economic woes.

And Lebanon's farmers say the change can't come too soon. As in many parts of the region, the country's farmlands have been disproportionately affected by global warming. The Bekaa Valley, nestled between Mount Lebanon and Syria, is stricken with droughts, and many wells are drying up. Growing potatoes, onions and other produce native to the region has been harder than ever before, experts and farmers say.

But cannabis is a drought-resistant crop, requiring little water and no pesticides. And it flourishes in the high altitudes of the Bekaa plains.

A farmer in a pickup truck rolls up next to Abu Salim. "What's the latest on the talk about legalizing the potatoes?" the farmer calls out. "Potatoes" is code for hashish, the resin made from the cannabis plants in these parts. "God knows!" says Abu Salim.

"If they don't go ahead with it, there's no hope for us!" the other farmer says, as he goes off on his way. No legal hope, that is.

Later, peering from beneath his bucket hat as he drives his truck over dirt roads -- unofficial streets that criss-cross his sprawling carpets of cannabis -- Abu Salim gesticulates wildly as he talks about how his plant "makes life beautiful." But what he calls the "herb of happiness" does not completely quiet his nerves, and he eyes the surroundings with some suspicion. He even keeps an assault rifle on the floor of his truck.

The Bekaa has a long history of producing hashish. Abu Salim even claims that his grandfather once found an engraving of a cannabis flower amid the ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Baalbek.

And its reputation extends far beyond Lebanon's borders, with "Lebanon Gold" a staple on the menus of coffee shops in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, was first identified in a sample of smuggled Lebanese hashish in 1964. That discovery helped pave the way to research into the medicinal and therapeutic components of cannabis.

Lebanese officials hope that legalizing the crop will boost exports, helping to jumpstart Lebanon's moribund economy. It has the world's third-highest ratio of debt to gross domestic product and suffers from decaying infrastructure and ballooning unemployment. Lebanese agriculture experts say the move could also breathe life into a languishing agricultural sector buckling under the effects of climate change.

"The people of this Bekaa plain know how to grow (cannabis). They are experts in this," says Mustapha Haidar, a professor of weed sciences at the American University of Beirut and the director of a prominent agricultural research center in the Bekaa. "They are not good in marketing but they are good at growing this plant. And if the government controlled the selling of this and gave licenses for medicinal uses, I think it's great. Why not?"

Economy Minister Raed Khoury told CNN, "Many, many specialists they have studied the qualities of this cannabis and they say it is one of the best in the world,"

"It can provide around $400 million to $800 million of revenue to the country," he adds.

Haidar, who is also a native of the region, argues that there are few alternatives to hashish cultivation in these plains. The plant's profit margins, he says, are extremely high -- at least triple those of potatoes and onions.

For now, law enforcement seems to be turning a blind eye to the cannabis farms. Police crackdowns on the farmers are infrequent, though the specter of arrest still hangs in the air, forcing farmers to stay out of the public eye. The predominant political force in the area, Hezbollah, appears to have a largely hands-off relationship with the farmers, according to experts and residents.

Several hashish farmers are supporters of Hezbollah, says Abu Salim. While the group has refrained from publicly endorsing efforts to legalize hashish, its most prominent political ally, House Speaker Nabih Berri, backed the move last month, becoming the most senior figure to do so.

Hezbollah declined CNN's request for comment on the legalization of cannabis.

The people of the area have too much to gain from decriminalizing hashish cultivation, some say. "Nobody can interfere with this one. Not even Hezbollah can interfere with this one. No way. There would be a revolution against them," says Haidar.

So far, the move has received little opposition, a sign that Lebanon's multifaceted political class is supporting it.

"The McKinsey report came out and all the politicians started to jump on it. I think they used it as an excuse to hide behind," says blogger and long-time cannabis legalization advocate Gino Raidy, referring to the 1,000-page economic report that was given to the Lebanese government last month and included a recommendation to legalize medicinal cannabis.

"They all want it ... but no one wants to outright say it so as not to upset their conservative bases."

But the move may also be happening in tandem with a shift in perception about cannabis use. "Ten years ago, no one would have imagined this. Even a joke about hashish was too much back then," says Raidy.

Advocates invoke a period before the French mandate of Lebanon began in 1923, when hashish was sometimes used as a form of currency. "In my hometown, people used to grow it," says Raidy of his village in northern Lebanon. "But then the apple made more economic sense, so they switched to that."

Meanwhile, as the politicians scrape together a cannabis law, Abu Salim will continue what he's been doing for years: tending the plants, harvesting them when they're ready, and selling them on -- despite the various risks.

"The hashish farmer," he says, "always makes money."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 57779

Reported Deaths: 1670
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin18393825
Ramsey7130261
Dakota4112104
Anoka3456113
Stearns284720
Washington197843
Nobles17516
Olmsted164923
Scott143918
Mower10882
Rice10068
Blue Earth8655
Wright8275
Carver8052
Clay75840
Kandiyohi6811
Sherburne6677
St. Louis47519
Todd4212
Lyon4203
Freeborn3561
Steele3341
Nicollet32213
Benton3133
Watonwan3000
Winona25216
Crow Wing22114
Beltrami2070
Martin2045
Le Sueur2031
Chisago1841
Goodhue1838
Otter Tail1823
Cottonwood1730
Becker1481
McLeod1450
Pipestone1449
Polk1393
Douglas1360
Itasca13512
Waseca1330
Carlton1300
Pine1280
Dodge1250
Murray1221
Isanti1140
Unassigned10941
Chippewa1011
Brown852
Meeker852
Wabasha840
Faribault830
Morrison821
Sibley802
Rock750
Koochiching743
Pennington731
Jackson710
Mille Lacs693
Cass662
Fillmore610
Renville605
Lincoln540
Grant521
Swift521
Yellow Medicine500
Pope460
Roseau460
Houston400
Norman370
Redwood320
Wilkin313
Hubbard300
Kanabec301
Aitkin291
Marshall290
Mahnomen251
Wadena240
Big Stone220
Red Lake210
Lake180
Stevens160
Clearwater140
Traverse100
Lac qui Parle60
Kittson30
Cook20
Lake of the Woods10

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 46704

Reported Deaths: 899
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk9874204
Woodbury367351
Black Hawk305462
Linn219887
Johnson200216
Dallas180735
Buena Vista179012
Scott163613
Dubuque159431
Marshall140725
Pottawattamie125724
Story112614
Wapello86633
Muscatine83948
Webster7637
Crawford7263
Sioux6072
Cerro Gordo58617
Tama54329
Warren5421
Jasper45825
Wright4511
Plymouth4488
Louisa37914
Dickinson3784
Clinton3383
Washington28810
Hamilton2431
Boone2342
Franklin2278
Bremer1967
Clarke1903
Emmet1852
Carroll1831
Shelby1761
Clay1741
Hardin1710
Marion1590
Allamakee1524
Poweshiek1518
Jackson1461
Benton1451
Des Moines1432
Mahaska13717
Floyd1322
Guthrie1285
Jones1262
Cedar1231
Buchanan1181
Butler1182
Hancock1172
Henry1143
Pocahontas1141
Lyon1080
Madison1072
Clayton1013
Cherokee991
Harrison990
Lee993
Delaware941
Humboldt941
Iowa941
Taylor940
Monona910
Winneshiek901
Mills850
Calhoun822
Kossuth820
Fayette810
Sac810
Palo Alto800
Mitchell780
Osceola780
Jefferson770
Page770
Grundy761
Winnebago760
Union741
Monroe707
Worth640
Lucas534
Chickasaw520
Davis511
Howard490
Cass481
Montgomery454
Appanoose433
Greene380
Fremont340
Van Buren341
Keokuk311
Ida290
Audubon281
Adair230
Decatur230
Ringgold211
Wayne191
Adams160
Unassigned40
Rochester
Broken Clouds
74° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 74°
Mason City
Overcast
77° wxIcon
Hi: 78° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 79°
Albert Lea
Scattered Clouds
77° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 79°
Austin
79° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 80°
Charles City
Few Clouds
77° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 79°
Warming temps and rain inbound
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Seans Weather 8/6

Image

'Truck to Trunk' event happening today in Dodge County

Image

Boys and Girls Club preps for upcoming school year

Image

Discussions on new rules for seclusion rooms

Image

North Iowa baseball players named to All-Star series

Image

Rising above adversity

Image

Rochester Diversity Council Wants to "Lift Every Voice"

Image

Gov. Reynolds Signs Executive Order Allowing Some Felons to Vote

Image

A resurgent local dairy business

Image

Sara's 10PM Forecast - Wednesday

Community Events