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16/11/2007 00:00:00

Lebanon: Political crisis nets largest cannabis crop since Civil

The grass is greener on the troubled side of the fence: Political crisis
nets largest cannabis crop since Civil War

With the Army busy with security and its battle in Nahr al-Bared, none
of the annual cannabis-eradication projects have been carried out

BAALBEK: Sporting a grey and green suit and a watch with golden
trimmings, Abu Abbas takes a long drag from his cigarette, smiles,
exhales into a room already filled with smoke, and declares that
"business is good." His freshly cut fields of cannabis are being
prepared for consumption.

"When there is political instability, business is always good," says Abu
Abbas, 40, who like scores of other farmers in Baalbek, has benefited
from the ongoing political crisis in the country. Like many others, he
decided this year not to plant conventional crops like potatoes, opting
instead to grow the more profitable cannabis plant.

According to the farmers interviewed, the cannabis industry is at its
best this year, with the rate of production in 2007 matching that of the
"golden years" of drug cultivation during the 1975-90 Civil War, when
militias and warlords raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from the

"The army couldn't get to us this year, it was busy with other crises,"
says Abu Abbas.

Away from the main roads and beyond the fields of grapes and tomatoes
lay hundreds of hectares of freshly cut fields of cannabis. Much of the
abundant marijuana harvest is being processed into hashsish in hidden
workshops in the mountainous area of Baalbek, near the Syrian border.

For over a decade, the Lebanese Army, in coordination with the Police
Drugs and Narcotics Special Combat force, has been battling the "illegal
crops" by burning the fields of opium and cannabis cultivated by the
local farmers.

Head of the Internal Security Forces General Major Ashraf Rifi confirms
that the security apparatus did indeed miss the "hashish season" this
year, due to recent deadly conflict in the northern refugee camp of Nahr
al-Bared between the Lebanese Army and the Al-Qaeda inspired militants
of Fatah al-Islam.

"Opium season is earlier than that of hashish, and so when the season
for hashish came around, the army was preoccupied with the Nahr al-bared
conflict," Rifi tells The Daily Star.

The conflict began in May and lasted for three months, claiming about
400 lives - making it the worst internal fighting in Lebanon since the
Civil War.

The small Lebanese Army has been under unusually great strain this past
year, between battling Islamists, guarding the year-long opposition
sit-in in downtown Beirut, enforcing its presence in the South near the
Israeli border, and clamping down on illegal arms smuggling across the
Syrian border.

The army was able to eradicate some opium fields, about 8 hectares in
2007 and 22 hectors in 2006, according to statistics released by the
Police Drugs and Narcotics Combat unit.

The overall production of opium in Lebanon has been drastically reduced
since the end of the Civil War. Authorities have closed down factories
specializing in the production of heroin and other opium-derived drugs,
most of which were established in the 1980s.

But these measures were met with only limited success: It was estimated
in 1990 that around 1,500 hectares of opium fields were planted,
compared to 3,000 hectares of cannabis.

According to the same statistics, the army destroyed 388 hectors of
cannabis in 2006, and undertook "no eradication" in 2007.

"We send in regular patrols and investigators," says Rifi, adding that
the police who find illegal crops call in the army for the eradication

"It is a very serious operation, as some of the residents resist with
weapons," he says.

"Drugs are illegal, whether one takes them, grows them, or sells them,
and each of the violators face a different penalty," says Rifi.

The production of hashish is nothing new in the Bekaa Valley. Cultivated
off and on for centuries, popularized by the Turks of the Ottoman
empire, but hashish first gained notoriety from an 11th-century sect,
the "assassins." It was said that members would indulge in hashish
consumption before undertaking killing assignments - hence the term
"assassin" derived from the Arabic hashashin.

More recently, the "red Lebanon" variety gained fame and became the
household name for Lebanese hashish - allegedly called that due to the
red soil in which it grows - and it sells for $1,200 per kilo.

Drugs dealers told The Daily Star that most of the drugs cultivated in
Lebanon get exported to Europe, and a large amount to Israel, Saudi
Arabia and other Gulf countries. The drugs are then sold for two to
three times their price - in Saudi Arabia the prices reach as high as
$4,000 a kilo.

Locals from the conservative and predominantly Shiite town of Baalbek,
an area covered with posters and banners bearing Hizbullah and Amal
slogans, openly discuss the culture of drug cultivation.

"It is routine, we are not ashamed to talk about it," says Abu Ali, 37,
a farmer who openly grows illegal crops, and at times tobacco if
authorities destroy the illegal plants.

"Families here protect each other against the government and
authorities," he says, as he anxiously thumbles with a chain of black
prayer beads.

Hawr Taala, one of the strongest drug holds in Baalbek, is the best
example of this fortified local protection. Visitors get hooded and
blindfolded before meeting the drug lords, whom the locals identify as
the "Masri Family."

"There is no government to help us, and so when we are faced with
economic problems, we help ourselves," says Abu Ali, echoing the
sentiments of most residents in Baalbek.

"Everybody's growing it, every single farmer," he says.

"The political parties follow the policy of starvation, so we are forced
to go to them for help," he adds, without identifying the actual parties.

Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, a member of Hizbullah's politburo, says his party
knows about the drug trade, and opposes it both "religiously and
politically," but cannot stop it.

"Residents of Baalbek are extremely poor, and so they turn to the only
means of making money, and that is, regrettably, through growing drugs,"
says Abu Zeinab.

Last week, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora formed a special
committee, composed of United Nations and local officials, to study the
developmental capabilities in the Baalbek-Hermel area.

Preliminary reports from the committee indicated the great "difficulty"
in finding sustainable cultivation of alternative crops of similar gain
as those of the illegal crops.

"The army burns down the fields, and the officials make a show of this
to the world of how they are fighting corruption and drugs, but leave
the farmers with no plan, no replacement or alternatives upon which they
can live on," says Abu Zeinab.

There have been several UN-backed programs and non-governmental projects
launched over the past 10 years to assist farmers in Baalbek and
surrounding areas in finding sustainable means of livelihood. However,
none of them has proven successful or sustainable, due to an apparent
lack of commitment on the part of officials and the overall instability
in the country.

"The farmers want to survive on other means, many want a way out from
the drug trade, but haven't been given a way to do that," says Abu
Zeinab, blaming the government for not providing that "other" way out.

A part from the boom in the illegal harvest this year, there might be
some less visible and more dangerous repercussions from the ongoing
political crisis, with Lebanon increasingly turning from a country that
export drugs, to a country of consumers of drugs.

"In the last couple of years, there has been an increase in [drug use]
among youth," said Mouna Yazigi, general manager of Oum al-Nour, an
non-governmental organization dealing with Lebanese drug addicts.

"When there is instability and crisis and no future, people turn to
drugs," she said.

Author: Daily Star: Lebanon via UKCIA

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