Israel and Mexico are the countries that have most recently (2020) decided to fully legalise cannabis, not only for medical and industrial purposes, but also for recreational use. In another development, Lebanon has become the first Arab nation to legalise cannabis cultivation, but at the moment only for medical and industrial use.
Historical cannabis use in the Middle-East
Earlier this year archaeologists published their findings of traces of cannabis discovered at a Jewish temple at Tel Arad, which is near the Dead Sea, ten kilometres from the Israeli city of Arad. The findings date from the 9th to the 6th century BCE (Arie et al. 2020:5). It is apparent that cannabis has been used in the Middle-East for several millennia (see blog ‘Archaeologists discover cannabis residues on 2,700 year old biblical shrine’).
Sūfī Qalandars, who used bhāṅg to excess, were highly visible in the Middle-East for several centuries, in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, from the 13th century onwards (Karamustafa 2006; Rosental 1971), and were largely responsible for introducing the recreational and spiritual use of cannabis to the region (and also to South Asia: see my blog ‘Radical Sūfīs‘).
Lebanon has long been renowned as a country that produces high-quality hashish, notably in the fertile and beautiful but impoverished Bekaa Valley, which is around seventy miles long. It has been farmed there for many centuries, illegally since the 1920s, when it was outlawed. Particularly in the late 1970s, Gold/Brown Lebanese and Red Lebanese hashish were widely distributed in Europe (the terms ‘Gold’ and ‘Red’ for Lebanese hash refer to not just its colour but also to the two growing seasons). In Britain, the price of an ounce of Lebanese hash rose from £10 ($13) in 1969 (IT 1969) to between £28 and £32 in 1975 (Clark 1975:20).
Between 1975 and 1990, during the Lebanese civil war, hash trade flourished in Lebanon, illegally generating $2 to $3 billion dollars a year (Babin 2019). It has been estimated that in 1977 cannabis was planted over 10,000 hectares, four times the size of the area covered before the war. During this period, the large trade in hashish (and also opium) generated huge funds for militia groups (Murphy 2020). A concerted crackdown by the government from the late 1980s reduced production.
According to the United Nations, Lebanon is the world’s third largest producer of hashish, after Morocco and Afghanistan. Between 20,000 and 30,000 hectares of land are currently used for growing cannabis. A tenth of a hectare produces between 1,000 and 2,000 kgs of cannabis, which can be turned into 4 to 8 kgs of hashish. In March 2020 Lebanese police seized twenty-five tons of hash, bound for Africa, in one of the biggest busts in Lebanese history. The hash was discovered in a convoy of eight trucks heading to the harbour in Beirut. Because of the war in Syria, the army has not recently been targeting farmers, so there was a large stock of unsold hashish on farms. These days farmers receive less than $400 per kilo, whereas in the heydays of production, they could get between $1,000 and $2,000 per kilo (Babin2019; Middle East Monitor 2020).
Lebanon legalises medical and industrial cannabis
In 2018, the government of Lebanon commissioned an inquiry by McKinsey (a global management consultancy company) into the feasibility of producing high quality medicinal products made from cannabis; this was one of 150 proposals by McKinsey (Babin 2019). It reported that a billion dollars a year could be generated from cannabis. Raed Khoury, Lebanon’s former caretaker minister for economy and trade, boasted that Lebanon’s marijuana “is one of the best in the world.” For the moment, however, cannabis is to be grown only for medical, research and industrial purposes and not for recreational use.
Despite objections from various parties and Hezbollah (the Shi’a paramilitary and political group backed by Iran), on 21st April 2020 Lebanon became the first country in the Arab world to legalise growing cannabis. It seems that Hezbollah objected because in the past they were beneficiaries of the trade, whereas under government supervision, legal farming would not benefit them (Lemon 2020). The government hopes to turn cannabis into a legal trade in a country in a severe economic crisis, where 48% of the population live below the poverty line. However, there is a concern that the granting of cultivation licences to private pharmaceutical companies will not benefit local farmers, many of whom will not be permitted to grow cannabis as they have a criminal record. Currently, there are 40,000 arrest warrants pending in the Bekaa valley, many of them for drug offences. In Lebanon, despite the changes to cannabis laws, simple possession of cannabis can still result in a three-year prison sentence (Murphy 2020; Trew 2020).
Cannabis use in Israel
Unlike in orthodox Islam, orthodox Jews are traditionally not prohibited by religious law to use alcohol or other intoxicants. In Israel, the largest Jewish immigrant community (c. 300,000 in 1973) came from north Morocco, mostly between 1948 and 1951, where for many centuries previously they had lived in a culture where using cannabis was commonplace. However, in Israel, there was a broad consensus among these Jewish migrants that eating or smoking cannabis was not acceptable. There was virtually no cannabis used in Israel at that time, apart from by some immigrant Egyptian Jews. However, in the late 1960s, just as in Europe and America, hash smoking by students, bohemians, kibbutz workers and others, including sections (particularly poorer) of the male, Moroccan Jewish population, became popular, despite the stiff legal penalties for doing so (Palgi 1975).
Medical cannabis and decriminalisation in Israel
Since the 1960s, when the pioneering work of the Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam revealed the chemistry of THC, Israel has been at the forefront of the global, scientific study of cannabis. Medical cannabis became legal in Israel in the early 1990s and by 2017 there were 25,000 licensed, medical users in Israel, one of the highest per capita number of medical users in the world (Keenan 2017).
On 31st March 2017, Israel partly decriminalised cannabis, replacing criminal prosecution with fines. Cultivation for medical cannabis was also approved, resulting in applications for a licence by 565 farms; export licenses were also approved on 27th January 2019. Cannabis industry lobbyists had complained that unless Israel permitted exports of medical cannabis, then they would be obliged to farm elsewhere and would also lose out to other exporters, such as Canada (Prohibition Partners 2019). Already by 2017, over fifty cannabis companies from the USA had invested more than $250 million in research and development operations in Israel (Keenan 2017).
Israel legalises recreational cannabis
Israel has the highest percentage, per capita, of cannabis users in the world. In 2017, 27% of the population aged between 18 and 65 reported using cannabis within the last year (Keenan 2017). Now there is a plan to fully legalise it, broadly following the arrangements implemented in Canada, and to open registered cannabis shops within a year.
The announcement on 12th November 2020 in Israel by Justice Minister, Avi Nissenkorn, to legalise cannabis fully came four months after an inter-ministerial committee, headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, began meeting to discuss how to regulate a potential, legal market. The findings were published in early November 2020. It has been estimated that over five years the government could earn between 11.3 and 19.6 billion Israeli Shekels ($3.45 to $6 billion USD) in tax revenue. Alongside legislation, it was also recommended that the state should invest in educational and addiction programmes (Weinreb 2020).
Israeli cannabis shops
Under the new Israeli laws, cannabis would be available for purchase in shops by adults over the age of twenty-one but, unlike in Canada, home cultivation would not be permitted. However, home cultivation restrictions are due to be reconsidered at some stage. Deliveries from shops will be permitted, but they will not be allowed to sell cannabis edibles that resemble candy. The amount of cannabis permitted to be sold to someone in a shop has yet to be determined, but personal possession of up to fifteen grammes will be allowed (Genesove 2020). Cannabis would not be allowed to be either imported or exported, advertising will be prohibited, and prices in shops would have to be “reasonable” so that customers do not resort to the black market. It will not be permitted to smoke cannabis in public places, though this policy is also set to be reviewed at a later date (Weinreb 2020).
Agencies that currently provide security screening, and which may disqualify people who use cannabis, will be asked to reconsider policies in the light of the new legislation. Even though using medical cannabis is currently legal in Israel, patients have complained of the near-impossible access to it from the few licensed dispensaries. It has also been recommended that reforms should be implemented to make it easier for patients to access medical cannabis treatments (Genesove 2020; Lamers 2020; Times of Israel 2020).
Israeli cannabis amnesty
There was an announcement in the Israeli parliament that these reforms do “justice to more than a million lawful citizens.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted in February 2020 that he wishes to expunge the criminal records of people charged with cannabis possession. In a PR stunt, as a mark of enthusiasm for the change in the law and “to spread peace and love,” in the first “air raid” on Tel Aviv since 1948, a drone flew over Rabin Square in September 2020 dropping free bags of weed (Hartman 2020). Times have changed in the Middle-East.
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