In Lebanon, a comeback for cannabis

Farmers in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley are growing more marijuana now that government forces are once again too busy with conflicts to stop them.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Ali plucks a sprig of the cannabis sativa plant and sniffs its distinctive leaves with appreciation. This Lebanese farmer's field of marijuana, a splash of bright green on the sun-baked plains of eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, will yield around 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of cannabis resin, or hashish, which he will sell for about $10,000, many times more than he could hope to earn from legitimate crops and for almost no work at all.

"All I have to do is throw the seeds on the ground, add a little water, and that's it," says Ali, who spoke on the condition that his full name was not used. "I would be crazy not to grow [marijuana]."

It has been a bumper year for marijuana cultivation in the Bekaa Valley, the largest, growers say, since the "golden years" of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, when marijuana and heroin grown and processed here flooded the markets of Europe and the United States.

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Hashish production is illegal in Lebanon, and each year since the early 1990s police backed by troops bulldoze the crops before they can be harvested, leaving farmers penniless. But the failure of United Nations and government programs to encourage the growth of legitimate crops, coupled with months of political crisis, deteriorating economic prospects, and a frail security climate have encouraged farmers to return to large-scale marijuana cultivation.

"The worse the security situation is in Lebanon, the more we can grow," says Ali.

Worth the risk, farmers say

Despite the threat of police raids destroying their crops, farmers say the financial returns justify the risk. This year they were lucky, however. The Army was unable to spare troops to provide security for the police raids because of the raging battle during the summer growing season against Islamist militants in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Furthermore, the heavily armed local farmers made it clear to the police that they would resist attempts to wipe out their marijuana crops.

"We told the police that for every [marijuana] plant they cut down, we would kill one policeman," says Ibtissam, the wife of a marijuana farmer in the village of Taraya.

Cannabis cultivation has a long history in Lebanon. For centuries, farmers have grown marijuana in the fertile Bekaa. However, it was not until Lebanon's civil war that marijuana and opium poppy growing really took off. By the end of the 1980s, the northern Bekaa was awash with both crops, generating an annual local economy worth $500 million, a massive sum for one of the poorest districts of the country, turning local farmers into multimillionaire drug barons.

The biggest of them all was Jamil Hamieh, a simple farmer from Taraya who built a fortune from cannabis and heroin production, cutting deals with Colombian drug lords and mafia dons and earning him the dubious distinction of being the only Lebanese on the US government's list of leading international drug "kingpins."

Now retired from active drug production, Hamieh lives in an air-conditioned tent where he hosts visitors with tiny cups of bitter coffee.

"It wasn't the government that made me stop. I was tired of being ripped off by all the foreigners I was dealing with," he says with a rueful chuckle.

With the end of the civil war in 1990, the Lebanese government launched a drug eradication program in coordination with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Encouraged by promises of state support and international funding, the farmers stopped growing cannabis and by 1994 the UNDP declared the Bekaa drug free.

But the development funds never fully materialized. Of the $300 million the UNDP assessed was required to develop the Bekaa without resorting to drug cultivation, only $17 million was received by 2001.

The program fizzled out a year later, although the UNDP continues to seek new ways of persuading farmers to grow alternative legal crops, such as plants with medicinal qualities that can be sold to pharmaceutical companies. The UNDP is about to launch a one-year pilot project to grow industrial hemp, which comes from cannabis but does not have narcotic properties.

"The farmers can sell the fibers to make money. We have had a lot of interest from factories overseas," says Edgar Chehab, the head of the UNDP's energy and environment division in Lebanon.

The northern part of the Bekaa Valley – where the bulk of the marijuana is grown – is dominated by Lebanon's militant Shiite Hizbullah party. Hizbullah officially disapproves of drug production, but it has chosen to turn a blind eye to the practice rather than risk a confrontation over the issue with its grass-roots supporters.

Indeed, Hizbullah in the past has co-opted cross-border drug smuggling networks between Lebanon and Israel, allowing narcotics to flow south into the Jewish state in exchange for intelligence gathered by Israeli drug dealers.

Will local drug use increase?

The promise of easy money dampens any moral misgivings farmers may have about producing cannabis and hard drugs. But some expressed uneasiness that the difficulties in smuggling drugs out of the country will mean that most of the cannabis will end up being sold in the local market which could increase domestic drug dependency.

"All the borders are in lockdown so we have to sell it in the Lebanese market as cannabis only has a two-year life," says Ahmad, a former marijuana farmer and heroin refiner.

Brigitte Khoury, a clinical psychologist and professor at the American University of Beirut, says that domestic drug use rises with the rates of production within Lebanon. "I am sure that if the marijuana planting increases there will be a corresponding increase in domestic drug use," Ms. Khoury says.

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