The Future of the Bekaa Valley, Up and Coming CBD Capital

Thursday, April 29, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

A recent special by VICE News highlighted the potential future of cannabis production in Lebanon. Anyone who visited the Bekaa Valley before the Civil War quickly discovered that hashish, an Arabic word, was liberally handed out to sample as you walked in the area. It was 1972 with my brother Roger and we couldn’t turn a corner without someone saying, “You Amreekee? Want some really good bad stuff? Try, free, come back when you are ready to buy, cheap…”

Since then, these mom and pop (and uncles and cousins) shops have morphed into around a dozen family-based mafias who harvest and export the hash throughout the region and beyond. If you use the metric of illegal drugs confiscated by governments around the world, “Morocco remains the country most reported by governments as the source of seized ‘cannabis resin’ (hashish), followed by Afghanistan and, more distantly, by Lebanon, India, and Pakistan.” So as the world’s third largest producer, Lebanon is slowly shifting its business model to one based on production for CBD medicinal-quality products. From drops and gummies to pills and sachets to ease pain, relieve stress, and promote a general sense of well-being – all this without even having to smoke something and worry about that distinctive odor.

This past year, Parliament finally passed legislation legalizing cannabis for medical purposes, which means most anything except resin and grass for smoking. The industry is projected to grow with “the global market for cannabidiol (CBD), valued at $9.3 billion in 2020 and forecasted to reach $23.6 billion in revenue by 2025. With an expected compound annual growth rate of 22.2% from 2019 to 2025, the future is looking incredibly promising for businesses tapping into CBD’s explosive popularity.”

It is this angle that is at the center of the VICE report. VICE follows a Lebanese-American entrepreneur to a meeting with one of the main family producers in the Bekaa to make the business case for shifting from exporting the base commodity of grass to refined oil that has a much higher, more lucrative, and legal future. Along the way, near the Syrian border, they also encounter smugglers, check points (both legal and local), and indicators of the vast wealth disparity between these rural areas and their overlords.

The story is engaging from a number of perspectives. First of all, the family spokesperson is young, firmly against the government interference in their business, and quite articulate about how their operations benefit the local people. Contrary to the usual image of the Bekaa, he repeats the claim that nothing of value can grow in the area except hashish, or as Ben Hubbard in the New York Times reported, “In a Lebanese farming village of rocky soil and stone villas, cannabis grows everywhere.” But the industry has fallen on bad times as part of the overall decline of Lebanon’s economy. “The costs of imported fuel and fertilizer needed to grow the crop have soared, while the Lebanese pounds that growers earn by selling their hash are worth less and less,” according to Hubbard.

To the locals, the passage of the recent law means government overreach into their lives and livelihood to enrich corrupt officials and their cronies rather than benefit the people. They claim that the government has done nothing in concrete terms to provide legal farming options despite government reports to the contrary. When the government has stepped in, the result has usually been the destruction of crops to extort money from the farmers, reported Hubbard. And it is to the cartels that the farmers turn to for relief.

As a recent Brookings article reported, “Lebanon legalized the cultivation of medical cannabis production (though not any form of consumption) in the spring of 2020. Legalization proposals languished for years, caught up in tensions between the two main Shia forces, Hezbollah and Amal, over the design of any legal regulation and, especially, the control of production.” On a national level, more than 40 warrants have been issued for leaders of the families, despite the promise of an amnesty some 20 years ago. It is this lack of a carrot and stick approach that most upsets the young producer who cannot even consider switching to legal hashish pursuits with a warrant hanging over him.

So the future remains unclear. With cannabis a main source of revenue for Hezbollah and Amal, and the continuing efforts to turn this into an industry that can contribute directly to Lebanon’s economy, the resolution will be another test of the country’s capacity to seize opportunities for growth that genuinely make a difference is the lives of the people in the poor part of the Bekaa.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.