Fighting ISIS with Legalization in Lebanon

Investors are used to watching oil as a factor in international politics, but cannabis?

Cannabis farmers in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley have threatened to turn their RPGs on Islamist militants to defend their crops. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has called for Lebanon to legalize cannabis, a turnabout from the official policy of eradication, which was significantly funded by the United States. Much of the cannabis growing is controlled by Hezbollah.

Many American investors, if they think about cannabis in an international context at all, get no farther than Mexican drug cartels or the potential for investment in Uruguay. Nonetheless, cannabis, cannabis politics and ultimately, cannabis investment, is a worldwide phenomenon. Legalizing cannabis commerce may, in fact, be a stealth weapon in fighting terrorism, while supporting international trade.


Lebanon’s History with Cannabis

Much of Lebanon’s agricultural production, including its cannabis crop, occurs in its interior Bekaa valley. The valley has long been a source of much sought-after Lebanese blonde and red varieties of hashish. It is illegal, of course, but reportedly not very difficult to get in Beirut.

During the Lebanese civil war the industry generated hundreds of millions of dollars. When the war ended in 1990, however, the government turned its attention to crop destruction. Since 2007, the U.S. provided more than $140 million to Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, which were tasked with eradication. This was likely less an effort to export our own war on drugs, than it was intended to disrupt funding to Hezbollah. It was, not surprisingly, met with armed resistance by the growers.

The government eradication effort effectively collapsed in 2012 with growing the violence in Syria spilling over the border into Lebanon. The Security Forces turned their attention to the spreading disorder, and growers turned to protecting their crop from destruction at the hands of jihadis, who deem cannabis un-Islamic.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese economy is in freefall with the disappearance of tourism and the influx of refugees. The widespread calls for cannabis legalization are seen by some as an effort to pump needed cash into the economy, not as in the U.S., a move toward de-regulating personal behavior.


Analogies, Anyone?

Many have likened Hezbollah’s interest in cannabis to the Taliban’s protection of poppy-growing and the opium trade in Afghanistan. Closer to home, the destruction of public institutions by drug gangs in Mexico have led several commentators to write of “failed states.” The common thread is that the illegality of the product keeps prices high enough to finance terrorism. Legalization may be the way to prevent cannabis from being turned to this purpose.


Cash is Where it Connects

The cannabis investor cannot be asked or expected to have a coherent explanation of Middle East politics. Nonetheless, it is necessary to look beyond dispensary licensing fees in Maryland or the zoning wars of Massachusetts. Cash, like cannabis is neither moral nor immoral, but it is powerful and it is international.

The state-by-state or locality-by-locality process of legalization in the U.S. obscures this fact, and distorts the shape of the investment by diverting attention away from the possibilities of interstate commerce and international trade, which is where business lives in the 21st century. Federal legalization would be a good way to treat this isolation.

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