Pubdate: Wed, 24 Dec 2014
Source: Daily Star, The (Lebanon)
Copyright: 2014 The Daily Star
Author: Kareem Shaheen


BAALBEK,Lebanon: The warehouse was swirling with cannabis dust, 
workers with covered faces sorting the harvest that was piled in mounds.

They had their hands full at the mini-factory outside Baalbek sorting 
through one of the largest fall harvests in recent years, one that 
many farmers in the Bekaa Valley see as a lifeline amid a stagnant economy.

"We decided here that we do not want people to go hungry," Ali Nasri, 
a prominent cannabis farmer in the Bekaa Valley, told The Daily Star. 
"Instead of stealing, plant hashish and confront the state."

"If the state provides a substitute or lowers the cost of food 
staples nobody will plant it," he added.

"It's planted openly," Nasri said. "People do not plant it in secret: 
the state sees it and the people see it."

With the war in Syria stifling the economy and bringing in a flood of 
refugees in the Bekaa Valley, as well as the closure of smuggling 
roads and persistent state neglect, many of the farmers in the towns 
and villages near Baalbek have turned to planting cannabis, a lucrative crop.

But growing production and tighter border controls have also caused a 
glut of cannabis in Lebanon, driving down prices. Calls to legalize 
the drug are also gaining traction.

Earlier this month, MP Walid Jumblatt renewed his calls for the 
legalization of the cultivation and sale of marijuana and the end of 
the state's prosecution of its sellers.

Jumblatt had also said in May that legalizing the drug would help 
struggling farmers in the Bekaa Valley.

Once a thriving multibillion-dollar business, cannabis cultivation 
was targeted by the Lebanese government in the early 1990s due to 
international pressure, but crop substitution schemes have failed at 
limiting it.

Nasri praised Jumblatt's call for legalizing cannabis, saying the 
Druze leader felt the "pain of the Bekaa" and the "hunger" of its people.

"Hashish would bring in a lot of money to the government and is less 
damaging to health, and will create economic stimulus," he said. 
"Poor people will benefit."

Individuals involved with the hashish trade here say it is necessary 
for the prosperity of local farmers and communities, creating jobs 
during the labor-intensive harvest, empowering local merchants and 
farmers at the expense of politicians, and creating capital for the 
Shiite community.

It also costs a lot less, one former smuggler said. He estimated that 
irrigating a dunam, roughly 1,000 square meters, of hashish crops 
costs about $300, and yields about four kuntars of hashish, or 
roughly 180 kg, earning them a tidy profit.

Meanwhile, "those who plant potatoes have lost money," he said.

Those involved with the trade here said it was necessary because the 
Bekaa Valley region has long been abandoned by the state and its 
ostensible political patrons, like Hezbollah, from an economic and 
social point of view.

Much of the development money in the party's coffers went to 
developing the war-struck south instead.

The lack of development, inadequate schooling and poor health care 
have led local farmers to increasingly adopt hashish as a 
money-making crop. They also insist that growing and selling it is 
not morally problematic because it is less harmful than other 
drugs  they refuse to plant opium, for instance.

But the glut of new production, combined with border restrictions, 
has caused prices to take a nosedive.

A single "ho'a" of hashish, a unit of measurement that corresponds to 
roughly 1.2 kg, used to cost up to $1,200 in 2012. Now it costs 
between $300-400, Nasri said.

Farmers are also squeezed because much of the hashish produced in the 
Bekaa Valley was never primarily targeted to customers in Lebanon. 
The vast majority was exported to Syria, and then on to Jordan, the 
Gulf states and Europe, as well as by boat to Egypt.

Lebanese consumers generally prefer pills like ecstasy, Nasri said.

But many of the old smuggling routes have been closed off to traffic 
amid the ongoing war in Syria. One old, popular smuggling route in 
the mountainous outskirts of the town of Brital is now manned by 
Hezbollah and Lebanese Army checkpoints.

As a result, some believe the smuggling of the hashish across the 
border is done by carrying quantities of it along with legitimate 
cargo in trucks.

Still, despite suffering some delays, Nasri said many traders still 
somehow manage to smuggle significant quantities through Syrian territory.

Though it is widely deployed along the border with Syria, the 
ex-smuggler said Hezbollah is aware of the hashish trade and is not 
involved in it, but said the party does not have the power to crack 
down on the farmers in the fiercely independent and clannish region.

"It's not in Hezbollah's hands," he said. "If it was they would fight 
it because it is irreligious, but people are planting it because they 
do not have social assistance."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom