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The Colonial Legacy of Drug Control in Lebanon

How we think about, regulate, moralise or criminalise drugs is often not a response to domestic considerations, but a negotiation with global forces in an uneven international environment. Drug control in Lebanon is no exception to this rule. Its policies, since their inception, are the result of colonial and neo-colonial impositions and local resistance to these international impositions.


Colonial beginnings

The colonial roots of drug policies are clear in Lebanon. The first drug control imperatives were introduced under the French mandate in the 1920s. In fact, the 1922 decision of the League of Nations that put Lebanon and Syria under French rule specifically mentions in article 12 that France will adhere, on behalf of the countries under its mandate, to conventions related to “drug trafficking” among other things.

The imposition of prohibitionist policies had to contend with the reality that 50% of Lebanon’s economy was reliant on cannabis. As a result of the decline of the silk industry in the early 20th century, many farmers resorted to cannabis cultivation, which had been part of the Lebanese agricultural landscape for centuries. French authorities were criticised by local politicians for prohibiting cannabis cultivation, which was a source of income for the villagers. Lacking power in the rural areas, and unwilling to alienate powerful landowners whose support they relied on, the French authorities resorted to a “theatrical” implementation of drug policies, aimed at satisfying international requirements without ostracising domestic political forces.


From independence to the war on drugs

The intersection of colonial impositions with local negotiations, resulting in performative drug control policies, would become the hallmark of Lebanon’s approach.

After its independence, Lebanon continued the French charade. After declaring that it would take drastic measures to curb hashish production during WWII, members of the British Security Mission who assisted Lebanese authorities admitted privately that they had to apply “considerable direct pressure . . . on a reluctant Gendarmerie” to get any action done.

In the 50s, as the American war on drugs continued to fail domestically, the head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau Harry Anslinger had a new strategy: “Drug prohibition would work—but only if it was being done by everyone, all over the world.” This meant exporting the war on drugs to the Global South. Anslinger travelled to the United Nations to replicate the American model worldwide. From there, the drug war entered Lebanon, as American officials like Charles Siragusa were dispatched to the small Mediterranean country. The new global imperative to wage a war on drugs only deepened the performative aspects of Lebanese drug policies, yet with a stronger Western player to appease now.

Drug policies were halted during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1989). The total chaos that ensued led to an expansion of cannabis cultivation and the development of opium growing as Lebanese militias relied on arms-for-drugs trades and drug trafficking revenue to sustain their war efforts.

Grappling with reconstruction, post-war Lebanon was further limited due to its “Major” list status. The list of “major drug producing or transit countries” prevented country’s from receiving American aid. Reliant on foreign investment, Lebanese authorities restarted its past performance of cracking down on drugs to entice investment.

Poor farmers and people who use drugs were targeted by anti-narcotics efforts. As a result, the country successfully changed its perceptions within American foreign policy; they were now deemed to have “sustained positive performance in eradication and other anti-narcotic efforts,” which – along with American interests in influencing the stability of the Middle East – helped resume funding to Lebanon. From 1987 to 1997, despite being identified as a drug producing country, Lebanon was issued a waiver and enabled to access US funding.


Legalising cannabis cultivation

The latest episode of the neo-colonial “show” came in 2020, after the country’s financial meltdown, when the Lebanese Parliament passed law 178/2020. The law, which has yet to be implemented, legalised the cultivation of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes. It created a licensing system that gives growing rights to companies, who can employ individuals with no past drug-related convictions, effectively preventing traditional cultivators from participating in the industry.

The law also only allowed for the planting of specific cannabis strains that are “medically certified” over the cannabis strains endemic to the nation and region. Lastly, the law is mainly geared towards export of cannabis towards Western markets; the plant’s use remains criminalised in Lebanon, with policymakers having failed to reclassify it nationally as a medical substance. This law illustrates the ongoing legacy of colonial drug policies; reform remains geared towards fulfilling Western market forces and its changing legality around controlled substances, while maintaining punitive systems of drug criminalisation in producing nations. Countries like Lebanon must meanwhile remain compliant with global prohibition to guarantee access to international funding.


Conflicting global pressures

Today, many policymakers have shaped and stretched the global drug control system to their national desires. Global North countries like the United States, legalised access to medicinal and recreational cannabis well before its rescheduling by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in 2020. As early as the 1990s, California became the first state to regulate access to medical cannabis; today, almost half of all US states have legal access to recreational cannabis.

Yet leaders of the war on drugs continue to push for global prohibitionist policies, tying financial packages to drug war compliance, making prohibition a necessary position for aid-dependent Global South countries like Lebanon. An imperialist approach to drug control is kept in place, with resources extracted from the same countries that are barred from accessing profiting from their production. If the Lebanese want access to drugs, it must do so for Western benefit – through an export-focused market, like the cannabis industry – or illegally, breaking with the established regime and risking its harsh consequences.

Those who bear the brunt of the violent costs of colonial drug policies are often those at the bottom of the drug chain: it is primarily people who use drugs who are sacrificed to appease the demands of global actors. Human Rights Watch published a report in 2013 documenting severe human rights violations occurring in detention centres against a number of vulnerable groups, including people who use drugs. Horrific stories about the treatment of sex workers, the LGBTQIA community and people who use drugs in the Hbeish police station have woven traumatic stories of abuse and violence into society’s fabric.


Regaining sovereignty over drug policies

Countries in the Global South have begun to stand up to the hegemony imposed by the global drug control regime: from Bolivia calling for a recognition of the right of its indigenous populations to use Coca, to Columbia leading a global coalition to reform drug policies and recognise the devastating impacts of decades of drug war repression.

Lebanon is far from having a comprehensive, fair and just approach to drugs, one that could allow a fair economic exploitation of cannabis while providing a safer environment for people who use drugs. Instead of looking to the Global North for guidance, Lebanon has more to gain by learning from the other countries breaking their legacies of colonial drug control.

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