Cannabis has a long history of medical use that spans back thousands of years. The first recorded medical use for the plant dates back to 2737 BC, in the world’s oldest pharmacopeia where cannabis was indicated for over a hundred ailments including gout and malaria.
Across time and space, various cultures, including the local one, have grown the plant and utilized it spiritually, culturally, industrially as well as medicinally. Scholars have studied and recorded its medical properties and benefits through the ages until the 20th century when the international drug control regime strictly restricted its use, scheduling it under both Schedule I of the 1961 and 1971 conventions and Schedule IV of the 1961 convention. Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention contains “the most dangerous substances which are particularly harmful and of extremely limited medical or therapeutic value”. Schedule I of the 1971 convention contains, for its part, the substances “presenting a high risk of abuse, posing a particularly, serious threat to public health which are of very little or no therapeutic value.”
As such, the drug conventions effectively halted any research into cannabis, until a recently renewed interest emerged worldwide with a number of research institutions focusing on the properties of the plant, and experimenting with different legal frameworks for the control, regulation or legalization of controlled substances.
In 2018, the World Health organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) recommended rescheduling cannabis to recognize its medicinal properties and medical uses, allowing for a more flexible approach towards the use and research of cannabis. In December 2020, the Committee on Narcotic Drugs (CND) partially took into consideration the ECDD’s recommendation and removed cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention while keeping THC under Schedule I of the 1961 Convention.
In the meantime, after years of regional instability and faced with the growing threat of economic and financial collapse, Lebanon was looking at avenues for possible economic growth and financial gains. Enter the 2018 Mc Kinsey report, proposing around 150 economic options for Lebanon’s economy, including the export of cannabis which promised returns of $1 Billion.
In April 2020, the Lebanese parliament passed a law legalizing “the Cultivation of Cannabis for medicinal and industrial purposes.” Law 178/2021 establishes two bodies in charge of granting licenses to persons or entities for the cultivation of cannabis and defines the requirements to apply for a permit, cultivate cannabis and sell it or manufacture products from the plant.
In the section detailing the rationale for the law, Lebanese legislators highlight the “scientific findings and the many studies pertaining to the medicinal benefits of cannabis”, all the while denying the rights of local population and residents to access medicinal cannabis.
Since the days of the French mandate in Lebanon, the state has adopted a repressive approach to drugs and has considered cannabis an illicit substance despite the long history of cultivation of the plant in the country. In 1998, Lebanon passed law 673/1998 which criminalizes the use of illicit drugs and schedules cannabis as a “very dangerous substance with no medical use3”.
Despite legalizing the cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes and recognizing the plant’s medicinal properties, the 2020 law fails to expressly provide the right to consume medicinal cannabis, fails in amending the Lebanese Law on Drugs which criminalizes substance use and personal possession, and fails to reschedule cannabis as a substance with medicinal properties.
By failing to consider avenues through which the local population could benefit from the scientific and medical advances linked to cannabis, it emerges that the Lebanese legislator has solely focused on the economic prospects all the while avoiding reconsidering its drug policies. It has done so, as evidenced by the raison d’etre of the law, to “protect public health” and shield it from the “health risks linked to the use of cannabis.” Whereas the medical use of other substances that are considered “dangerous and harmful” is still allowed under certain conditions.
Should the state focus only on the legality of a substance, upholding its moralistic view of cannabis while disregarding the medical evidence that would benefit the individual’s health?
In light of these contradictions, Skoun interviewed health care professionals in Lebanon as well as patients and academics to establish the need to amend drug laws in Lebanon in order to ensure access to medicinal cannabis to people residing in Lebanon.
This policy paper will look at the history of cannabis in Lebanon and the attempts to control its cultivation, the specificities of Lebanese cannabis, the right to access medicinal cannabis through the right to health lens, the right to access medicinal cannabis in light of the SDGs, and finally explore legal avenues to ensure access to medical cannabis.
Before tackling access to medical cannabis, this paper will briefly go over the law regulating cultivation of medicinal cannabis and some of its most prominent failures that go beyond the absence of recognition of the right of people to access medical cannabis for medical purposes.