Hash is big in Lebanon. It’s one of the five top cannabis producers in the world, and the industry is valued at $ 4bn. Economists and politicians are not unaware of the fact that Cannabis growing is a lucrative option in Lebanon.
BBC business news spoke to Ali Nasri Shamas, one of Lebanon’s biggest growers and most prolific traders: a man with 130 hectares of cananbis fields. He says the need to survive forced him into growing cannabis. He started growing it six years ago and is willing to fight for his crop. Luckily, he wouldn’t have had to do much fighting lately, because the Lebanese army has not been conducting its usual aggressive eradication program owing to spillover from Syria’s conflict.
As a result, more people are growing cannabis, which meant that the market was flooded and prices dropped. The Syrian war also cut off the supply lines to the Gulf, and alternative customers had to be found further abroad.
Lebanon explodes with cannabis
The Lebanon cannabis industry exploded during the 15-year civil war. In the 1990’s there was a great international effort made to stamp out the industry, but without an equally profitable alternative crop, cannabis kept creeping back.
Many have suggested that legalizing cannabis makes the most sense. It could make a huge difference to Lebanon’s economy, which is struggling because of support to more than a million refugees fleeing the Syrian war. Most of these refugees end up living in the impoverished, but highly fertile Bekaa Valley.
Economist Marwan Iskander explains that the country faces a Catch-22. To support the refugees in a decent manner, economic activity is needed to bring an income to the farmers in the areas where the refugees are concentrated. But one of the most profitable crops for the region is officially illegal.
According to the World Bank, a $4bn boost to the official figures would be very welcome if cannabis were legal. It would create work opportunities, and a substantial increase in national income.
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Others say an alternative crop would be the solution, and are looking into Syrah grapes. Walid Habchi says you can get better returns on wine than on cannabis if you are prepared to wait. Some 250 farmers switched to grapes after growing cannabis. Grapevines need large initial capital investment, and a waiting period of three years to see results. People are happier growing grapes because it’s a respected crop with a future, says the MD of Domaine des Tourelles, a Lebanese winery.
He is optimistic that the region could produce great wine, because it has enough sun, people with know-how and passion, plus fertile land. However, many still believe that the future lies in cannabis.
Meantime Israeli neighbors are considered the experts in producing medicinal cannabis, and have been world leaders in medical cannabis research for decades.
Tikun Olam is the first and foremost supplier of medical cannabis in Israel, and it has been developing professional standards for growing medical grade cannabis. Israel is poised to take it to the next level in the coming era of legal cannabis. Will Lebanon attempt to follow suit?