SSDP Country Highlight: Lebanon

Earlier this year, I was taken aback by civil society’s impressive commitment to drug policy reform and advocacy in Lebanon. As SSDP’s first Country Highlight, I’m excited to shine a spotlight on this beautiful and complicated country, to explore its drug laws, recent and important developments, and most importantly, share some of the fantastic work of civil society.

In the first installment of this two-part series, I will introduce you briefly to Lebanon and its historical background, followed by an overview of its drug policy and developments. In the second, we will explore some of the most prominent NGOs working as civil society, smashing through barriers and unapologetically enacting change and providing drug-use related services in Lebanon. 

SSDP’s engagement with the country has been historically low, and I think we’re missing a huge opportunity; I hope to change that with this Highlight. I hope to pique your curiosity and shine a light on a nation whose atmosphere around drugs is no less complex and fascinating than the nation as a whole. 

Please enjoy this first installment of Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s very first Country Highlight.

Background on Lebanon

First, a little bit about the country: Lebanon is a Mediterranean nation located in the Levant, an area of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and shares its borders with Syria, Palestine/Israel, and the Mediterranean sea to the west. The country faces many challenges, including sectarian civil conflict, corruption, and managing the massive influx of Syrian refugees in the last decade. Without diving too deeply into it, the country is also currently in the middle of a revolution, fighting off an aggressive economic crisis, and managing the coronavirus pandemic--simultaneously. 

Moreover, Lebanon is a stunningly beautiful country, with many diverse terrains from foaming seascapes to rolling mountaintops. Its capital, Beirut, is an internationally renown travel destination and boasts one of the best nightlife scenes in the world, famous for its exceptional electronic nightclubs. It is common that Lebanese people speak a combination of Arabic, English, and French, due to its progressivity and colonial history with France.

Signs from the Revolution // Downtown Beirut, Feb 2020

Lebanese Drug Laws and Recent Developments

The use, possession, and trade of illicit substances in Lebanon is a crime, and many people face jail time if caught with drugs. Nonetheless, the country is also a major exporter of marijuana, and is internationally known for its hashish production. When I spoke with my friend Chiri--who was recently featured as part of SSDP’s member highlights--she shared with me grim accounts of people navigating the criminal justice system after being caught with drugs.

As with many countries, the withholding of civil and human rights and de-facto criminalization of addiction are also attributes of Lebanese drug policy--but this is not the whole picture. Earlier this year, Lebanon became the first Arab nation to legalize medical marijuana production, an indication not only of a changing legal landscape, but of the massive cannabis production which already happens in the north. In this Deutsche Welle (DW) video, DW explores cannabis farming in Lebanon and interviews farmers, who not only make their livelihood farming cannabis, but who are also deeply skeptical of potential state intervention. Their skepticism is justified and alludes to the reality of corruption and unmet needs which many Lebanese face. The government has also insisted that the change in medical marijuana laws is from solely an economic perspective, and might help provide more financial resources to a country warding off a worsening economic situation.

From the perspective of someone who uses drugs, there are actually more options than the punitive laws suggest. Lebanon has a functional drug court referral system, whereby one can avoid jail time after being caught with drugs, by attending a panel and potentially undergoing treatment for addiction. The existence of this system represents a positive alternative to incarceration for the nation, but does not include decriminalization, like in Portugal. According to a 2017 report from the Ministry of Public Health, the system was established in 1998, with various treatments being added since, including Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) in 2010. 

However, friends of mine in Lebanon told me it doesn’t work perfectly, and many people aren’t able to access it. Elie Aaraj, the executive director of the NGO MENAHRA--a Beirut-based organization coordinating harm-reduction and advocacy efforts across the entire Middle East and North Africa region--told me in February that one’s outcomes are best if they can contact civil society members immediately after being caught with drugs to help navigate the system. If you’re otherwise so lucky, perhaps you have a “wasta”--a personal connection--who might help one avoid punishment, like the kind my friend Chiri spoke about in her recent Member Highlight. In fact, the Drug Addiction Committee who would manage your case and defer you from punishment to treatment, remained inactive for many years after its establishment, leaving civil society to ramp up its efforts to “fill the gap”. Finally in 2013, due to the efforts of Lebanese addiction-center and advocacy organization Skoun, the Committee became active, signaling a positive change for both the legal landscape surrounding drugs, and the lives of drug users in Lebanon. During our February conversation, Elie Aaraj expressed his optimism to me about the success of the program in changing the lives of Lebanese citizens.

Clearly, civil society has played an important role in changing the drug laws in Lebanon. In the next installment, we’ll explore some of the impressive actors and organizations making a crucial difference in the country.

Old and New, Side by Side // Beirut