Legalising cannabis production would support the economy of the Beqaa Valley

The speaker of Lebanon’s parliament proposes legalisation, stressing that cannabis can be used for medical purposes. In the Beqaa, the plant was grown in Ottoman times. Production costs are low, and the local variety is among the best in the world. Farmers today are facing a collapse in prices and difficulties in trade with neighbouring Syria.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The legalisation of cannabis production and sales is being discussed in Lebanon as a way to address the country’s worsening economic situation and give a semblance of legality to a practice that dates back to Ottoman times.

According to Lebanon’s French daily L'Orient-Le Jour, the idea comes Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, who announced that the country "could legalise the cultivation of cannabis and its use for medical purposes."

Experts consider Lebanese cannabis resin to be among the best in the world. There are two types: the red one is among the most expensive and sought after; the yellow one is made with the first flowers of the season. The latter is less strong and less flavour than the first, but it is still a refined and appreciated product.

Legalisation proponents include Talal Shreif, head of the Yammoune municipal council, in the Beqaa valley, north-eastern Lebanon, where most of the country’s production is concentrated.

"Cultivation began under the Ottoman Empire and continued under the French mandate,” he explained. “Why not legalise it once and for all?”

According to several studies, cannabis has many positive applications, including in the medical field in the form of oil. It helps against chronic pain and can treat some particular forms of epilepsy.

In the past the authorities tried, albeit timidly, to limit its cultivation by introducing other crops. In the 1990s, a UN-backed programme sought to eradicate cannabis in favour of other products, but the plan never worked because of local opposition.

For years, the police destroyed large the production of large tracts of land devoted to the plant in the Beqaa Valley. However, the war in neighbouring Syria and the waves of refugees in Lebanon have pushed the authorities to close one eye (if not both) and to encourage its cultivation to appease the local population increasingly impoverished by the never-ending flow of Syrian refugees.

"We are going through a horrific economic crisis,” said Talal Shreif. It is time for the state to be kind to us. Even if the price of hashish should fall once cultivation is legalised, local farmers can benefit from it anyway. In the past it was traffickers who took advantage of high prices, the result of illegal sales, not farmers."

Economically, the Beqaa’s land and climate are optimal for cannabis production, more than in the case of other crops. Yammoune’s top official agrees. "A dunum[*] of potatoes can cost farmers up to US$ 1,500 compared to 10 dollars for a dunum of hashish.” Farmers can pay “10 dollars to buy the seeds of hashish in April, irrigate the fields three times, buy some herbicide and harvest in September.”

Legalisation is also driven by the recent collapse in prices with a kilo of cannabis now fetching US$ 80 to 100. For many producers selling at least one kilo would be a dream, especially since they are left with stocks from the last two years. Many still remember with nostalgia the time when a kilo would get them US$ 1,200 to 1,500.

Overproduction is the main problem today since cannabis production covers almost 60 per cent of the farmland. For experts, legalisation, regulations and better law enforcement by police (against Syrian militias and fighters) could lead to higher prices, boosting the local economy in the Beqaa at a time of growing hardships.

[*] The new or metric dunam now covers a thousand m2.