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16/10/2007 00:00:00

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.

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.

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

"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

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.

Author: Christian Monitor via UKCIA

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