Pubdate: Mon, 17 Sep 2001
Source: Newsweek (US)
Copyright: 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
Section: World Affairs; Page 34
Author: Joshua Hammer, Newsweek International
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


The Bekaa Valley Regains Its Outlaw Reputation

Abu Ali is back in business. Wading through a fertile field in Lebanon's
Bekaa Valley, the 30-year-old farmer squeezes the bud of a seven-foot-high
plant and rubs the sticky juices between his fingers. The fragrant,
spiky-leafed crop extends for acres in every direction--enough cannabis to
make Cheech and Chong weep in envy. From 1993 until last year, Ali (a
pseudonym) struggled to make a living growing sugar beets here, abandoning
the family's traditional cash crop--marijuana--in exchange for promises of
U.N. development money. "Every year they told us this would be the year [the
money arrives]," says Ali. "Finally we got tired of waiting." Last April he
dusted off some old seeds he'd kept in dry storage, and replanted 15 acres
with cannabis--worth $60,000 on the wholesale market. Ali knows the risks:
government helicopters recently dropped leaflets across the Bekaa Valley,
warning the farmers that they'd be arrested if they harvested the crop. "We
hear their threats, but they mean nothing," says Ali, breathing in the sweet
aroma from his field of dreams. "We're going to stay and fight."

It may not be an idle threat. Long a stronghold of smugglers and Hizbullah
guerrillas, this sun-baked valley in the heart of Lebanon is fast regaining
its outlaw reputation. After a 10-year hiatus, ripening fields of cannabis
carpet the rugged hills above the Bekaa as well as the drier flatlands,
where many farmers have tried to conceal the outlaw crop behind rows of
tobacco and corn. Hizbullah's influence is growing as well. Drug experts say
some cultivators are in league with the guerrillas, who need funds for their
military campaign against Israel. The proliferation of weed has become an
embarrassment for Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who is struggling to
pay off his country's $25 billion debt and attract foreign investment. With
the harvest just days away, Hariri and his government face a dilemma: if
they allow the farmers to bring their cannabis crop to market, they risk
forfeiting tens of millions of dollars in international aid and undermining
Lebanon's attempts to improve its image abroad. If they send in troops, they
could face violent resistance from Ali and other armed cultivators. Either
way, the conflict reveals how Lebanon's effort to rejoin the international
community is being dragged down by forces from its chaotic past.

Drugs have a long tradition in the Bekaa Valley, from the days of the Roman
conquerors through Lebanon's civil war, which ended in 1990. Cultivators and
tribal drug lords working with militias built up a thriving cannabis trade
that brought in $1.5 billion at its peak in 1988. Ships packed with bars of
Lebanese hash sailed out of Beirut, Tripoli and other lawless ports, bound
for Egypt, Israel and Europe. Newly minted drug multimillionaires built
garish mansions across the valley and stashed their fortunes overseas. The
trade collapsed during the worldwide crackdown on narcotics led by the
United States in the early 1990s. Under pressure from the U.S. State
Department, the occupying Syrian Army plowed up the Bekaa's cannabis fields
and sprayed them with poison. The drug lords were forced to sell off their
villas, the militias melted away and the farmers--who were promised U.N.
irrigation projects, alternative-crop subsidies and other incentives--agreed
to grow less lucrative produce, like plums and wheat. But the funds never
materialized. Mohammed Nasser El-Ferjani, a top U.N. official in Lebanon,
says donors ponied up only $16.7 million of the $ 300 million the United
Nations claims it needs to develop Bekaa agriculture. Western officials say
the U.N. frittered away the money it did receive through mismanagement and

Under the circumstances, marijuana--easy to grow, well suited to dry
climates and highly profitable--was irresistible to farmers who'd struggled
to earn a living growing labor-intensive legal crops. The Lebanese
government is in a deepening quandary over how to deal with the outlaw crop.
Hussein Husseini, the Bekaa Valley's representative in Parliament, has urged
Prime Minister Hariri to offer the farmers one-time compensation, burn the
harvested weed and quickly make good on promises to bring irrigation and
other improvements to the Bekaa. But Hariri has rejected the idea, claiming
that compensation would amount to a bribe and wouldn't be fair to farmers
who've resisted growing dope. Hariri insists he'll send in the troops,
though many observers believe he's bluffing. "My suspicion is that the
harvest will be sold," says a Western diplomat. "Then we'll say, 'OK, it
happened one year--but if you want any credibility in world markets, if you
want the West to help you globalize, this has got to stop'."

What Hariri is up against becomes clear during a drive through the rugged
hills northwest of Baalbek. Gunmen from the Jaffar clan that controls much
of the cannabis trade prowl the road that twists past ripening fields of
dope, chasing off uninvited visitors. "The Jaffar clan are born armed to the
teeth," says Husseini. "It's a way of life." And it's a tradition that won't
die easily.
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