Pubdate: Mon, 19 Oct 2020
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company
Author: Ben Hubbard


YAMOUNEH, Lebanon - In a Lebanese farming village of rocky soil and
stone villas, cannabis grows everywhere.

It fills the fields that surround the village and lines nearby roads
where the army operates checkpoints. It sprouts in the weedy patches
between homes and is mixed with other colorful blooms in flower beds.

There is a cannabis crop near the mosque, and down the road from a
giant yellow flag for Hezbollah, the militant group and political
party whose leaders forbid its use on religious grounds.

Jamal Chraif, the mukhtar, or village chief, of Yamouneh, praised
cannabis as "a blessed shrub" for what he called its many beneficial
properties and the ease of its cultivation.

"There is something sacred about it," he said. "God makes it

But for the first time since he began growing cannabis two decades
ago, Mr. Chraif planted none this year because a chain of events have
erased most of the profits that used to come with the village's main
product: the hashish extracted from the plant. Instead, he is focusing
on apples.

He blames the woes afflicting the village, and Lebanon in general, on
cosmic forces, including aliens, the Antichrist and the Bermuda
Triangle - an explanation that could have been inspired by the drug

The reality is more terrestrial. The Lebanese pound has lost 80
percent of its value against the United States dollar since last fall,
and farmers have taken the hit. The costs of imported fuel and
fertilizer needed to grow the crop have soared, while the Lebanese
pounds that growers earn by selling their hash are worth less and less.

Lebanon's financial crisis has also undermined the drug's domestic
market, and the war in Syria has snarled smuggling routes, making it
harder for middlemen to reach foreign markets.

This has forced painful choices in Yamouneh, a picturesque hamlet in a
neglected pocket of Lebanon where drugs, poverty, religion and
stunning natural beauty converge in unexpected ways.

For as long as anyone alive can remember, the yearly cycle in Yamouneh
has been driven by the planting, weeding and harvesting of cannabis.

The hashish extracted from the plant and sold to smugglers who spirit
it out of the country has done more than any other crop to help the
village residents edge out of abject poverty. It has provided reliable
income not offered by their legal, more fickle crops, like apples and
potatoes, and funded home expansions, truck purchases and children's

Now, the drug earns so little that some growers in Yamouneh doubt it
is still worth producing.

"It's over," Mr. Chraif said. "Now, growing hashish is a

The production here and in other communities made Lebanon the world's
third largest hashish supplier, after Morocco and Afghanistan,
according to the United Nations.

Although hashish, a cannabis concentrate with high levels of THC, is
illegal to produce, possess and sell in Lebanon, the government
earlier this year passed a law legalizing some cannabis cultivation
for medicinal purposes. The law has yet to be implemented, and the
cannabis grown in Yamouneh remains illegal because of its high THC

Now Lebanon's economic crisis threatens to do what years of army raids
and government efforts to combat the drug never did: reduce hashish

While fondly recalling the days when a kilogram of hashish easily
fetched between $500 and $800 - and the few years when the price shot
above $1,000 - the farmers fear the earnings for this year's product
could fall to around $100 per kilo, or about $45 a pound.

"If the situation stays like this, we won't plant," one longtime
grower said, speaking on condition of anonymity like others to avoid
legal jeopardy. "Hope has been cut off."

But the full effects of hashish's declining appeal as a cash crop are
yet to be seen in the village. Even as some farmers are abandoning it,
others are still clinging on.

During a recent visit, scores of Syrian refugees swung scythes to fell
waist-high cannabis plants outside town, then piled the cut stalks
into large bales. Most were minors, some as young as 9, who said they
welcomed the work since fears of the coronavirus had shut their schools.

They earned about $2.50 for a long day in the sun.

The landowner looked on, occasionally raising a shotgun from his
shoulder to fire at birds overhead. He had grown up with hashish and
said this was the worst year he had ever seen. The costs for imported
supplies - fuel, fertilizer and plastic sheeting to bale the harvest -
ate into his profits, but tradition kept him growing.

"We were born into this," he said. "If there were no hashish here, you
wouldn't see a single house in the village."

The 5,000 or so citizens of Yamouneh, at the base of a mountain in the
Bekaa Valley, are Shiite Muslims. Nearly all share the same last name,
Chraif. About 1,200 Syrians have settled in the area to look for work
and escape the war across the border.

Talal Chraif, the mayor and elected head of the village council - and
a rare resident who says he has never grown cannabis - attributed its
prominence to chronic unemployment and the plant's suitability for the
local environment.

"No sickness afflicts it. The bugs don't attack it. The lack of water
doesn't affect it," Mr. Chraif said. "There is a guarantee with the
crop, and that is why the farmers went in that direction."

He recalled the old days when the Lebanese government, with funding
from the United States, tried to snuff out cannabis, dispatching
soldiers to torch fields and sparking clashes with armed growers. But
those efforts yielded to official neglect about a decade ago.

"It reached a state where they realized, because of the poverty,
'Let's leave those people alone and act like we don't see them,'" Mr.
Chraif said.

Efforts to replace cannabis with sunflowers and saffron never took

Two years ago, as Lebanon's finances slid toward the abyss, McKinsey,
the consulting giant, generated a national buzz by suggesting that
legal cannabis cultivation could earn the country big profits.

"The quality we have is one of the best in the world," Raed Khoury,
the economy minister at the time, said, suggesting it could spawn a $1
billion industry.

Lebanon did legalize cannabis in February of this year, the first Arab
country to do so. But the government has made no progress since on
implementing the law.

And since hashish is still illegal, and the government would be able
to tax legal strains of cannabis, Yamouneh's farmers, long used to
operating outside the law, opposed legalization.

The many two- and three-story villas and pricey SUVs out front bear
testament to the cash that hashish has brought to the village, but
residents say the big money has always gone to the smugglers.

As he was receiving struggling farmers outside his home, the mayor
said he expected hashish production to drop by as much as half this
year as growers struggle to make ends meet.

"They are asking, 'Why should I grow it if I am going to lose?'" he
said. "They smoke it themselves to forget their worries."
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MAP posted-by: Matt