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.”