It’s always interesting when a new location breaks stride and changes laws. We saw it with Thailand in Asia, with Uruguay in South America, and with Lesotho in Africa. With ranging reasons as to why to open these industries, the Arab world has now put forth its own example. As of the spring, Lebanon legalized medical cannabis.
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It would be untrue to say that Lebanon is the first Middle Eastern country to legalize cannabis in some form. It’s neighbor to the south, Israel, has been a central location for the study and cultivation of cannabis for decades, pushing through its own medical legalization originally back in the 1990’s. But Israel stands apart from its Arab neighbors when it comes to many beliefs and ideologies, so Lebanon’s entrance into the legal cannabis game is still very much a first for that part of the world.
A bit about Lebanon and cannabis policy
Cannabis is illegal in Lebanon to possess or use. There are no personal use laws so even small quantities are considered a criminal offense. Regulation of the system and punishment is done through the Narcotic Drugs and Psychoactive Substances Law 673, which states that any narcotic use without a medical prescription is subject to a prison sentence of three months to three years, along with a fine. Individuals are permitted a certain amount of leniency if not involved in the drug trade, and showing of generally good character.
Sale and supply crimes are illegal. Offenders found guilty of these crimes face heavier sentences than for possession and use, and do not qualify for any sort of leniency. Personal cultivation is also illegal, with no individual-use amount applicable. Cannabis seeds are not legal in Lebanon and cannot be bought, sold, or possessed.
When it comes to CBD, Lebanon makes no differentiation between the cannabis plant, and the individual parts, like cannabinoids CBD or THC. This makes CBD just as illegal as a standard marijuana plant, regardless of the lower THC content. For this reason, it is illegal to sell or use the oil in Lebanon, although the country’s recent medical legalization could certainly change how CBD is used there.
As far as industrial hemp
Prior to new legalizations this year, it was illegal to grow hemp at all in Lebanon, although this didn’t stop it from happening. The Bekaa Valley is the center of the hemp region, which provides rich, healthy soil for cultivation. Over the years the Lebanese government has worked hard to eradicate the hemp fields of the region, which has had an incredible monetary impact on local farmers, forcing many into poverty. Despite these efforts, cannabis is still grown en masse, with cultivation mainly controlled by powerful clans and Hezbollah, which has caused much conflict over the years between farmers and police. As of just a few years ago, the UN cited Lebanon as the 3rd biggest world supplier of cannabis resins.
The legal framework changed earlier in the year when Lebanon legalized medicinal cannabis, including the now-legal farming of cannabis for medical use.
Now legal for medical use
In 2018, Lebanon’s house Speaker, Nabih Berri reported to US ambassador Elizabeth Richard, that Lebanon was in preparations to begin legal cultivation of cannabis for medicinal use. The idea of legalizing cannabis in Lebanon gained a bigger following after the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. sent the Lebanese government over 1,000 pages of economic recovery information which included creating a legal cannabis market.
On April 21st, 2020, Lebanon legalized medicinal cannabis, when legislators approved a law that allows the cultivation of cannabis for industrial and medicinal use. Hezbollah representatives provided opposition to the bill, which was still able to pass anyway, as allies of Hezbollah – including President Michel Aoun, and Speaker Nabih Berri – were still in support of the legislation. Of course, Hezbollah’s reasons for opposing the legislation probably have to do with the group’s current control of much of the cannabis cultivation in the country, particularly the Bekaa region, and the possibility of having a chunk of its revenue stream diverted to the government. Criminal organizations don’t usually appreciate these legalizations.
It bears pointing out that Lebanon legalized medical cannabis during the most globally locked-down period of the Coronavirus pandemic. While other governments were temporarily closing-up shop, or tabling cannabis legislation for the future, Lebanon was getting it done, showing, if nothing else, a very strong desire to really make this happen.
What did McKinsey & Co. say?
McKinsey & Co. is a global management firm, which in 2018 gave a longer than 1,000 page macroeconomic report to the Lebanese government which focused on ways to make short-term gains in order to stabilize a politically unstable, debt-ridden economy. McKinsey & Co. made several recommendations for ‘quick wins’ in different areas like wealth management, tourism, and construction, but of more interest was the company’s recommendation to legalize the already buoyant cannabis industry of the country, and turn it into a legal export. The recommendation did make international headlines when it was first presented, but political infighting and the inability to form a functioning government eight months after the previous election, led to delays.
The report was actually made public to the media the following year, when Economy and Tourism Minister Raed Khoury, released it in an effort to regain waning attention on the matter. While it didn’t get as much attention the second time around, a clearer picture was put out to the public of a country in very dire need of help, fraught with economic mismanagement, with deficits in every sector. One of the revelations of the paper, for example, showed a GDP slip from 9.2% in the years of 2006-2010 to 1.3% over the next seven years.
The report offered a total of 160 initiatives. These initiatives were based mainly on reinvigorating the five sectors that were acknowledged as being most-likely to help jump-start the economy, including: tourism, financial services, industry, agriculture, and knowledge economy. The recommendations provide for the projected addition of approximately 200,000 jobs in these sectors, and $11 billion incrementally added to the GDP by 2025.
What comes next?
As we already know, simply passing legislation is not enough. Once passed, a law needs to be implemented, and it needs a regulatory framework to do so. According to officials, the idea is to have a state-run system, with licenses issued to private companies for the farming, production, and sale of cannabis products, through a regulatory authority. No statement has been made on the approximate cost of these licenses, nor has information been released on licensing requirements, or if local farmers will be afforded any protection from larger international companies. The idea is to attract new investments, create a new revenue stream, and raise generated tax revenue, so it’s probably a very sad ‘no’ to the last point.
While Lebanon legalized medical cannabis, it didn’t say much yet about what it means to its own citizens. When a set of laws to govern the industry come out, it will be more clear how the people of Lebanon will benefit from the actual idea of cannabis medications, or if this legalization is really only a vehicle to enter the global medical cannabis market.
According to Alain Aoun, a senior MP in President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, the only reason for the decision is economic motives. He explained to Reuters, “We have moral and social reservations but today there is the need to help the economy by any means.” This attitude might be great for Lebanon’s economy, but it probably won’t do as much to help ailing patients in a medical system.
Sometimes change is good, even when the reason for it isn’t quite what it seems. Some medical legalizations come as the result of wanting to provide medications to sick people. Some, like Lesotho, and now Lebanon, are not only more driven by economic reasons, but possibly only driven by those reasons. In the world of medical cannabis today, the medical cannabis industry and making money off of it, often trumps the idea of how valuable this medicine is, and all the wonderful things it can do. Sometimes change comes through the backdoor. Let’s hope Lebanon really makes the most of this new industry, and that the people of the country get the chance to benefit from it, both monetarily, and medicinally.
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