Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley is among the most fertile regions in the Middle East. The town of Brital is a contradiction of ostentatious riches and extreme poverty. Tired old vans share potholed roads with gleaming Range Rovers and Bentleys with blacked-out windows and no number plates. Despite rife unemployment, huge gated mansions dot the landscape.
Some of the most powerful pot-growing families in Lebanon live in Brital. They grow weed crops openly in nearby fields and own an arsenal of weaponry that puts them out of reach of the law. Over the years, it has become a no-go zone, but if economists and consultants get what they want, the entire Bekaa Valley, including Brital, will become a billion-dollar legal marijuana industry.
The Lebanese government is studying proposals to legalize the cultivation of medical cannabis for export. The plan forms part of a package of reforms proposed by global consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, which the government hired to brainstorm a five-year plan to rescue the country’s failing economy and eradicate overwhelming poverty.
The increasingly dire state of the country’s finances prompted its government to recruit outside help. With a debt-to-GDP ratio at a whopping 153 percent, Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world. The catastrophic civil war in neighboring Syria just worsened an already bad situation. Before the conflict, the country had economic growth of nine percent. Today, it sits at just two percent.
In the 1,000-page report, handed to Lebanese president Michel Aoun earlier this month, the consulting team from McKinsey recommended investing in avocado production, creating a banking hub, and boosting tourism. However, it is the suggestion to legalize pot production that received the most attention. The idea received additional weight when Raed Khoury, minister of the economy, endorsed it.
“The quality of cannabis we have is one of the best in the world,” Khoury explained to Bloomberg, stating that the industry could be worth $1 billion, or £760 million, to Lebanon. A collection of powerful families in the Bekaa region currently control most marijuana production in the country. This wealth has armed them to the teeth and enabled them to challenge the police and army unhindered.
Perhaps very unsurprisingly, these families are sympathetic to legalization. “They totally agree with it. It is a serious step towards reforming the Lebanese economy,” said Qassem Tlaiss, a Brital resident who acts as spokesperson for the powerful clans known to cultivate cannabis in the Bekaa Valley. Tlaiss is not himself involved in the production of marijuana.
However, he claims that the government has been neglecting the Bekaa region for decades, leaving people there with no choice except turning to the illegal drug trade for employment. He blames the battle between authorities and farmers for further impoverishing the area. Periodically, the government attempts to destroy crops there, which frequently results in gunfire exchange.
Currently, there are approximately 42,000 outstanding arrest warrants for the Baalbek-Hermel district, mostly for offenses related to the drug industry. Tlaiss heads a committee calling for a general amnesty for the area, set up by the Bekaa clans themselves. “This is one of the reasons why the region is so poor,” he explained.
“No one can work because there are so many arrest warrants out against us,” Tlaiss added. “Anyone who is suspected of anything cannot find a job.” People have been growing cannabis in the Bekaa Valley since the Ottoman times. The industry peaked during the chaos of the country’s 1975 civil war, which only ended in 1990, when roughly 2,000 tons of pot was leaving coastal ports illegally every year.
The war in Syria, which erupted just over the border in 2011, is causing another boom for cultivators. Farmers claim that their trade has doubled since 2012, as authorities in Lebanon have been focusing more on controlling the borders. Today, they collectively earn roughly $200 million annually, exporting to North America, Africa, Europe, and the Gulf States.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Lebanon is now the third largest exporter of cannabis resin in the world. It is unclear whether the proposal set by McKinsey calls for government to cooperate with established cultivators in the Bekaa Valley or creates a completely new industry. Earlier proposals by Lebanese officials suggested issuing existing farmers with cultivation licenses.
However, despite much expertise already in the Bekaa region, the area has long been a complicated web of competing interests. The Lebanese state is possibly at the very bottom of the pecking order. Tlaiss believes the proposal will not go down well with Hezbollah, the Shia militant group and political party whose strength rivals that of the Lebanese army, and for whom the region acts as a base.
“Hezbollah is against it. They want to keep this region poor so they can attract young men to fight for them,” Tlaiss says. “They are holding the joints of Lebanese politics and they can do whatever they want.” In May, the country held its first elections in nine years, yet it still has no government. Decisions, particularly those involving huge reform efforts, require consensus from all rival sects, which is rare.
“If you look at the history of reform attempts in Lebanon, it has been looked at from a purely political angle,” explains Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Byblos Bank in Lebanon. “If a reform is implemented and one side takes credit for it, it will be considered as a loss to their opponents. It is a zero-sum game.” When there is rare agreement, corruption hampers effectiveness.
Today, Lebanon ranks 143rd in the Transparency International, the world’s index on corruption. Walid Jumblatt, the most vocal MP advocate for legalization in the Lebanese parliament, questions the need for McKinsey. “I am not going to read this bullshit report,” he said. “I proposed this idea a long time ago. We did not need to pay over a million dollars to achieve a conclusion that we can legalize cannabis.”
Despite his contempt of the report and his reservations about McKinsey, Jumblatt still supports the end goal. “It could be done, in theory,” he said. “It could be one factor of improvement and development for the abandoned areas of Baalbek and Hermel.” If all goes according to the proposed plan, the Bekaa Valley will not just retain its reputation for growing weed, but also become an international hub for it.