Cannabis profiteers: Lebanon’s politicians behind illegal drug trade

Lebanon’s politicians are the country’s number 1 cannabis consumers and traders. This, according to a report aired by LBCI on Thursday. The crew visited a cannabis plot in the Bekaa’s remote village of Yammouneh, where they inspected fields of green as far as the eyes can see. The farmer who remains anonymous throughout the entire interview –no doubt for security reasons- explains why growers are holding strong to the crop. At one point he even caresses a plant and states that most of his customers are Lebanese politicians*. A not-so-outrageous claim.

*On how much drugs and Lebanese politics are intertwined, click here
Farmer holds marijuana plant in Lebanon's Yammouneh | Source: LBCI
Farmer holds marijuana plant in Lebanon’s Yammouneh | Source: LBCI

“How are buyers able to purchase tons of this material for export?” reporter Sobhiya Najjar asks, “They’re all protected … Politicians are our main customers,” he laughingly responds.

The area supports a multitude of crops, the report adds, but unlike cyclical agriculture that include the cultivation of apples -which produces fruit every third season- cannabis plants never fail.

Although the cultivation of cannabis, namely marijuana, is illegal in Lebanon, farmers still resort to the versatile plant as their crop of choice given the lack of alternative programs by the Lebanese government and the plant’s consistency and strength in enduring harsh conditions.

Two weeks separate cannabis farmers from their annual hashish harvest, as the cabinet contemplates whether or not to embark on its yearly efforts to destroy the crops.

Army and ISF tractors annualy destroy cannabis fields. | Source: TheDailyStar/NidalSolh
Army and ISF tractors annualy destroy cannabis fields. | Source: TheDailyStar/NidalSolh

Even though most political parties in Lebanon have a long history of shady association with the drug trade, the state has outlawed cannabis cultivation and has enforced a policy of eradication since the end of the civil war. Every year the Security Forces and the Lebanese Army turn up with bulldozers to destroy the crops. This has lead in the past to resistance by farmers, many of whom are armed to the teeth.

“The government receives international grants to curb the drug trade, but it does not present farmers with any help or alternatives,” Yammouneh Mokhtar Mezher Sharif says.

“We will stand and fight, we will not die … The government does not even look our way … If we are to rely on it, we would surely perish; we have to survive,” the cannabis farmer proclaims.

سياسيو لبنان يشترون الحشيشة

Large scale cannabis cultivation began in the 1920’s to replace Lebanon’s failing silk industry and soon flourished into one of its most valuable exports. This reached its peak during the 15 year civil war where Lebanon was said to produce 1000 tons of hashish a year.

In a documentary produced by VICE in 2014, titled “Lebanon’s Hash Farms”, journalist Oz Katerji visits a cannabis plot in a small village near Deir al-Ahmar. On the way to the plantation he stops by the side of the road where a number of cannabis plants grow unattended.

“The crop here just grows naturally like a weed. It’s incredibly sticky and it smells … I mean I can’t even begin to describe the smells … It’s hard to imagine someone criminalizing something that just grows by the side of the road,” he says.

Katerji then walks up to the plot where he speaks with a young man who “in between studying and hanging out with his friends,” helps out with the family business.

VICE's Oz Katerji poses with cannabis farmer in Lebanon | Source: ozkaterji.wordpress.com
VICE’s Oz Katerji poses with cannabis farmer in Lebanon | Source: ozkaterji.wordpress.com

“The problem is that we want an alternative to growing hash. The government hasn’t done anything to provide alternatives to the farmers,” the young man explains. “Is there anything more beautiful than this view?” he then asks.

The team then interview a second grower, Ali Chamas, who’s been waging war against the authorities to protect his plantation. He talks to the team about his displeasure for the state and the politicians who are running it.

Ali and a large group of farmers defied state demands to destroy their crops in 2013. When state bulldozers arrived the farmers fought off security forces with heavy machine guns. The standoff only ended when the state promised to provide money to the farmers for new crops. Something that never happened.

Ali Nasri Shamas holds a Kalashnikov assault rifle outside his hashish factory in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Shamas says the region's hash growers are ready to turn their weapons against any Islamic militants crossing the border from Syria. | Source: PRI/RebeccaCollard
Ali Chamas holds a Kalashnikov assault rifle outside his hashish factory in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Chamas says the region’s hash growers are ready to turn their weapons against any Islamic militants crossing the border from Syria. | Source: PRI/RebeccaCollard

“There’s an annual budget of between $5 – $10 million to destroy the hash fields. Why not use that budget to support the people here? They spend $1 million on the operation and keep $9 million between themselves. They are benefiting from this. If they provide an alternative crop, we’ll stop growing hash,” Chamas says.

According to the documentary, 90% of the dealers have their own networks with politicians and generals in the Lebanese government. On why the state targets small time-farmers and users, Chamas responds: “The government doesn’t benefit from the small time farmer … To show the public that the government is active in tackling drugs, they arrest the consumer and the small-time farmer, but they benefit from the big-time dealer.”

Hezbollah pressures the government to destroy the crops because when people are well-off they do not go on to become fighters, Chamas adds. To hear more of the farmer’s account on how much the group is involved in the process, watch the entire documentary below.

The war in Syria has boosted the local drug trade. In recent years and as the army focuses on the violent fallout of the neighboring country’s war, hash plots were left to flourish. The influx of Syrian refugees into the Bekaa also provided more labor. In a bid to benefit from growers who could be useful partners in keeping control of the area should instability cross over into the Bekaa, security forces have left marijuana plots relatively unmolested. But growing production and tighter border controls have also caused a glut of cannabis in Lebanon, driving prices down.

In 2014, Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb called for the legalization of cannabis farming to “allow the state to benefit from the revenue of its export”. MP Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party to which Chehayeb belongs, has also called for the legalization of cannabis cultivation.

“Instead of prosecuting the farmers, let’s find other solutions for them,” Chehayeb said. “The planting of cannabis must be organized to benefit the state and the industrial sector, and it is one way of helping the farmers.”

In turn cannabis farmers supported the latter’s calls. In an interview with The Daily Star, farmer Ali Nasri explains that how badly needed the crop really is.

“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.”

Seeking alternatives:

In September 2014, the Lebanese Agriculture Ministry requested that the U.N’s Food and Agriculture Organization include Lebanon with other countries in the regional project for the introduction of quinoa and the institutionalization of its production.

“Through the project, FAO is assisting Lebanon to assess the potential for … adopting quinoa, to foster and strengthen transfer of knowledge competencies, to build and develop local capacities and develop a basis for a national sustainable strategy for the integration of quinoa in the farming systems,” the organization said.

Demonstration plots were established in south Lebanon’s Tyre and the Bekaa’s Tal Amara and Kfardan. Farmers’ field days were held and other workshops and training sessions were scheduled.

Quinoa, which is largely seen as a suitable alternative to cannabis agriculture, has an exceptional resistance to drought, poor soils and high salinity. It can also be sustainably grown at any altitude and can withstand temperatures between -8 and 38 degrees Celsius.

Several Lebanese restaurants have started to introduce the Andes cereal into their menus, with some even replacing the local burghul (crushed wheat) with quinoa. But not much is known about the current status of the project, and quinoa mostly remains imported and consequently expensive.

Source: quinoandina.com
Source: quinoandina.com

Native to Peru, quinoa has been called “the little cereal that could.” In its native soil it is referred to as the mother of all grains. It even got its own international year and has launched hundreds of health-food products. Although several article claim that the rise in demand for the cereal has hurt Peruvian farmers, a more recent study refutes those claims.  Jeremy Cherfas of NPR says: “A new study shows that rather than starving Peru’s poor, quinoa’s rise actually helped them.”

But here’s the catch, the price of quinoa since 2014 has steeply dropped. Since its peak the price of quinoa has fallen, by 40% between September 2014 and August 2015 alone. Today more than 50 countries around the world are growing it, including European nations, and South American producers have lost their price-setting power. It is unlikely to rise any time soon; both European and Peruvian producers are holding on to unsold quinoa stock, according to The Economist.

Perhaps this is why we have no update on the current status of the project. Plunging prices must have surely deterred farmers on a large scale especially since they are already unfamiliar with the crop and are therefore fearful. Although trendy, quinoa has years to overcome before it is adopted in Middle Eastern cuisine. After all, how many of our mothers are ready to prepare stuffed vegetables with quinoa? I know mine isn’t no matter how many times I’ve preached about the endless benefits of the cereal.

Ours is a local Godsend:

Personally, I see no reason why cannabis should remain illegal given how high the quality of our produce is and how profitable it is to local communities. Its current status has proven detrimental to our agriculture, economy, and communities. The benefits of cannabis are endless, and contrary to popular belief are not only limited to recreational uses and/or drug abuse. In fact marijuana (female cannabis with a high THC level) was once called the “fruit of the Gods” and has a multitude of scientifically proven properties that help treat glaucoma, cancer, epilepsy, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s.  Hemp (male cannabis plants with lower THC levels), can be used for the production of health foods, organic body care, and other nutraceuticals. Hemp fibers and stalks are used in clothing, construction materials, paper, biofuel, plastic composites, and more.

Source: leafly.com
Source: leafly.com

 

Source: leafly.com
Source: leafly.com

Hemp is an attractive rotation crop for farmers. As it grows, hemp breathes in CO2, detoxifies the soil, and prevents soil erosion. What’s left after harvest breaks down into the soil, providing valuable nutrients. Hemp requires much less water to grow — and no pesticides — so it is much more environmentally friendly than traditional crops.

Last year, the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) estimated the total retail value of all hemp products sold in the U.S. at $620 million. Almost all of the raw hemp materials were imported from other countries.

So, why not Lebanon? Countries are moving forward towards legalization seeing how extremely versatile this plant is, and Lebanon remains one of the top five global producers of hashish, accounting for around 5-6% of total world supply since 2002. Global demand for cannabis and hashish is ever-increasing. Is it not time we invest in and protect what is so natively ours? Of course, this will require that our members of government shape up; that they wake up and smell the buds. But seeing how many are already involved in the trade, I doubt much regulation would be set in place if profits do not directly fall back into their pockets.

About 
Nadine Mazloum is an Australian born, Beirut bred multimedia journalist, editor, and blogger. She most recently worked as StepFeed's Senior Editor. Before that, she was the news editor and resident blogger for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International [LBCI] and has held several positions with well-known media outlets both locally and internationally. Her work appears online both on LBCI and on her personal blog, NewsroomNomad©.

1 Comment

  1. menaribo

    August 27, 2016 - 8:14 am
    Reply

    Legalize it.

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