Middle East to Become World’s Future Cannabis Hub?

Turkey’s recent acknowledgement of hemp’s economic value and subsequent decision to expand its production may influence other MENA countries to adopt similar pro-cannabis policies.

In January 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an exponential increase in the country’s production of hemp, or kendir in Turkish. Following Turkey’s past economic losses due to anti-cannabis pressure from the U.S., Erdogan has acknowledged the importance of the plant to Turkey’s economy.

In recent decades, Turkey’s farming of cannabis has declined due to strict anti-narcotics regulations. Erdogan’s goal to revive the cannabis market will make the plant a major component of the country’s economic plan since Turkey will no longer import it.

Between 2015 and 2018, Turkey’s cannabis exports were estimated at 13 tons with a value of $24,000, while imports during the same period totaled 4,521 tons, valued at $5.8 million.

Cannabis: ‘National Matter’ in Turkey

In 2016, Turkey began regulating cannabis cultivation in 19 out of 81 provinces for medical and scientific purposes in order to curb illegal cultivation. However, following Erdogan’s announcement, all Turkish provinces will soon be allowed to cultivate cannabis for industrial use, i.e., for manufacturing textiles, foods, paper, personal care products, plastics, and building materials. 

Turkey forbids cannabis production apart from using seed, fiber, and stem, but the hope is that increased hemp production across the country will lead to the extraction of new substances for industrial use. With roughly 0.2 to 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s psychoactive ingredient, hemp could be utilized as raw material for the automobile and textile industries, among others.

Erdogan-leaning Islamists, like writer Abdurrahman Dilipak, are calling for the legalization of the cannabis plant for other purposes, including medicine. 

The pro-government media also hailed Erdogan’s call to expand the farming of cannabis. In January 2019, daily newspaper Dirilis Postasi published an eye-catching headline: “Cannabis production is a national matter.” 

Turkish Tweet in Turkish-Cannabis production is a national matter

Turkey’s decision to expand cannabis production followed Israel’s recent legislation approving the exportation of cannabis for medicinal purposes. 

Israel: New Cannabis Export Legislation Increases Tax Revenues

Aspiring to become one of the hubs in the global cannabis market, the Israeli Parliament approved the 16th reform to the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, designed to regulate the exportation of medical cannabis, in late January 2019. The move is expected to boost tax revenue by NIS 1 billion ($272 million), as Israeli companies are among the world’s leading medical marijuana producers. 

While at least eight Israeli companies are producing cannabis, dozens of business owners have requested government export licenses. The move is expected to create job opportunities and increase investment in a wide range of fields, including agriculture, research and production, according to the Israeli Ministry of Finance

However, there is a fear among Israeli critics that this recent change in legislation might result in an increased usage of the plant for recreational purposes, which is currently illegal in Israel. Today, Israeli companies are required to get approval from the Health Ministry and can only export their products to countries where cannabis use is legal.

“Right now, there are only three countries that allow cannabis exports: the Netherlands, Canada, and Israel,” Sara Gluck, president of the America Israel Cannabis Association said. “There are over 30 countries that have medical cannabis programs, and these are all potential importers of Israeli cannabis.”

Although Israel is making strides in the legislation of cannabis, its neighbor, Lebanon, is still struggling to regulate hemp cultivation to revive its fragile economy.

Although Israel is making strides in the legislation of cannabis, its neighbor, Lebanon, is still struggling to regulate hemp cultivation to revive its fragile economy.

Lebanon: A Future Provider of Medical Cannabis? 

Lebanon’s economy has been declining since 2011 because of the political crises in the region and the Syrian civil war. Lebanon is considered the third most indebted country in the world, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of almost 153 percent. 

Lebanese cannabis production flourished during the country’s civil war, from 1975 to 1990. In the early 1990s, the government and United Nations Development Program attempted to introduce innovative crops, without success. Consequently, farmers returned to the illegal cultivation of cannabis. 

In July 2018, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri announced that his cabinet was studying the necessary legislation to legalize cannabis farming for medical purposes. This inspired a trending hashtag #IfCannabisWasLegalized, which prompted the Lebanese people to weigh in on Berri’s announcement.

Later that month, McKinsey’s team of consultants delivered a report to Lebanese President Michel Aoun proposing the cultivation of cannabis. The idea was strongly endorsed by the Minister of Economy and Trade Raed Khoury, who told Bloomberg that the quality of Lebanese cannabis is “one of the best in the world,” with the potential of becoming a $1 billion industry. 

Cannabis production in Lebanon is dominated by a group of powerful landowners in the fertile Bekaa Valley region.

Cannabis production in Lebanon is dominated by a group of powerful landowners in the fertile Bekaa Valley region. Despite the fact that they already grow cannabis and are largely left alone by the authorities, they support the legalization of cannabis cultivation as a potential means to revive Lebanon’s economy.

Ahead of the release of the McKinsey report, Bekaa Valley officials had been working on a cannabis legalization draft plan to be discussed in parliament. Antoine Habchi, a newly elected Lebanese Forces MP from the Bekaa region, told Middle East Eye: “We need to find a way to make sure that farmers make money off cannabis production in a legal way. Currently, only the traders, who benefit from political protections, reap the benefits.”

Lebanon is the world’s third-largest exporter of hash, cannabis resin, after Morocco and Afghanistan, according to the 2018 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes report on Lebanon. 

Morocco’s Challenge of Legalizing Cannabis 

In 2013, Morocco’s parliament raised the issue of legalizing cannabis for the first time in the kingdom’s history. Parliament debated the advantages of medical cannabis and considered how young farmers could benefit from the plant’s earnings rather than smugglers benefiting from illegally trafficking it. 

Moroccan law criminalizes the sale and consumption of cannabis; nevertheless, farmers still grow it. In 2013, cannabis afforded a living to around 90,000 Moroccan households, according to official figures.

In April 2018, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) proposed a bill to legalize the cultivation of cannabis in the Rif region in northern Morocco.

In 2016, the secretary general of the PAM signed an agreement with Mohammed V University in Rabat for a study into the medical and environmental uses of kif (the Moroccan word for smoked cannabis, the equivalent of “pot”) to initiate a debate on the legalization issue. However, the study stalled, and the bill was never put on the parliament’s agenda.

Abdelaziz Benazzouz, a member of PAM and co-editor of the bill has said that the Islamist ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), opposed the proposal. The PJD sees PAM’s pro-cannabis legalization stance as apurely electoral bluff,” a PJD member said. “Cannabis is a mafia activity, if it really had benefits, Morocco would become a big cannabis field!” 

Ministry of Interior officials feel that the legalization of cannabis for therapeutic use would generate a sense of “social relaxation,” boost the Rif’s economy, and alleviate poverty in the region. 

Despite the challenges facing Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Morocco, they are all interested in improving their economies by incorporating pro-cannabis legislation. Whether their success will turn the Middle East into the world’s future cannabis hub remains to be seen. Future developments in the U.S. regarding the legalization of cannabis are likely to open the doors to many more producers around the world and therefore to many new competitors.