Can Lebanon Turn Drugs into Money? Minister Discusses Plan to Cash In On World Famous Cannabis

Lebanon's economic minister has endorsed a plan to revitalize the country's struggling economy—and it includes capitalizing on one of Lebanon's best known, yet entirely illegal products.

In an interview with Bloomberg News, Lebanese Caretaker Economy and Trade Minister Raed Khoury discussed Friday a plan devised by New York-based global consulting firm McKinsey & Company to diversify the country's economy as it faces a deepening financial crisis. The plan reportedly included potential "quick wins" such as getting involved in reconstruction efforts for conflict-ridden Iraq and Syria, investing in the tourism sector and legalizing Lebanon's illicit cannabis farms for medicinal exports.

"The quality we have is one of the best in the world," Khoury told the outlet, adding that the cannabis had the potential to bring in up to a billion dollars.

A man works in a field of cannabis in Hermel, Bekaa Balley, Lebanon, July 31, 2013. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Lebanon in 2011 as one of the world's top five sources of cannabis resin and unrest in neighboring Syria has added to the lawlessness of the region. Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

The Lebanese government has long struggled to crack down on the cannabis growers in the Bekaa Valley, an eastern territory bordering Syria and largely under the influence of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement. The powerful Iran-backed political and paramilitary group has routinely denied any ties to the region's booming drug industry, but independent farmers are still well armed and the region's lawlessness has only increased with the outbreak of conflict in neighboring Syria. In March 2017, hashish farm operator Ali Nasri Shamas openly discussed his business with BBC News.

"Just like Europe and the U.S. export terrorism to us, we sell them drugs," Shamas told the station as he showed off large supplies of weapons and drugs. Local outlets such as Stepfeed and the 961 soon reported raids on his properties by Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, turning up a generous amount of loot.

Related: Drug Bust Fills Entire Football Field With 15 Tons of Hashish

Just last month, the forces made what they called the "biggest" drug bust in the country's history, confiscating some 15 tons of hashish in the Baalbek province of the Bekaa Valley. Photos accompanying the announcement showed that there was enough contraband to fill an entire football field.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked tiny Lebanon as the world's fourth-largest cannabis cultivator—behind Morocco, Mexico and Nigeria—in its 2017 World Drug Report. Despite Lebanon's official no tolerance drug policy, Lebanese cannabis finds its ways to foreign markets such as in Amsterdam and some enthusiast outlets such as Herb have pondered whether the country's famous red and yellow strains are the best in the world.

Khoury presented McKinsey & Company's full five-year economic vision to the government on Wednesday, after which Lebanese President Michel Aoun said: "The plan contributes to the development of an integrated and coordinated vision among the various productive sectors in the country, so as to move forward in the development of the Lebanese economy in a sustainable manner, and to cope with the challenges of the twenty-first century and the changing economic climates both regionally and globally," according to Lebanon's official National News Agency.

He did not comment specifically on a proposal to legalize cannabis for medicinal export. "Lebanon's ability, represented by its economic sectors and its young energies, to create an attractive business environment for direct foreign investments, and to activate competitive sectors capable of promoting economic performance indicators," he highlighted.

This isn't the first time that the idea of cashing in on Lebanon's booming underground hashish market has been floated. Renowned Lebanese economist Marwan Iskander suggested the move, which would reportedly bring in $4 billion, to BBC News in 2016. Khoury wouldn't be the first Lebanese politician to support it, either. Walid Jumblatt, head of the majority-Druze Progressive Socialist Party, tweeted in support of legalizing the cultivation and use of hashish in 2014.

"Never in my life have I smoked marijuana, but I support growing cannabis for medical use and to improve the living conditions of farmers in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley," Jumblatt later told Al-Jadeed television, according to local news site Ya Libnan. "Let's legalize cannabis and regulate its cultivation."