HERMEL, Lebanon: It takes two hours from Baalbek to reach the hash-filled hinterlands of Hermel. Riding in their SUVs with black-tinted windows, the kings of this industry clutch their Kalashnikovs and RPGs – weapons that never leave their side.
These men are now at the center of a growing debate about whether to legalize cannabis, after a number of politicians recently suggested that as the current strict policy on the smoke-able drug wasn’t working, alternatives should be found.
“Never in my life have I smoked marijuana, but I support growing cannabis for medical use and to improve the living conditions of farmers in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley,” Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt told Al-Jadeed TV earlier this month.
Crop substitution programs have failed, he said, suggesting that the solution was to “legalize cannabis and regulate its cultivation.”
But for Jalal Mahfouz, head of the Planning and Development Center in Hermel, any move to legalize the illegal industry, which is believed to be worth millions of dollars, would backfire by reducing prices and demand.
He argued that hashish was currently expensive because it was illegal, and that if that changed the plant’s value would plummet.
He also cast doubt on the idea that the government would be able to enforce any such law – even if supportive of the industry – given its near total absence from the remote area.
Cultivating cannabis, whose female buds can be transformed into top-grade hashish, became popular during Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War, when some 80,000 dunums yielded a minimum of $500 million worth of drugs.
Under international pressure, the government began to target the industry after the war ended. It launched rural development programs in collaboration with the United Nations and other international organizations, causing cannabis cultivation to decrease by around 90 percent in the early 1990s.
Yet the industry’s roots were never truly ripped out, and cannabis plantations are now flourishing with near impunity.
Crop substitution programs have failed to achieve their aim and despite repeated crackdowns by the authorities involving bulldozers and plows, which often result in violent clashes, nothing seems to have made a difference.
“All attempts to control marijuana growing have failed, and all attempts to find alternative crops have also failed,” former Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud noted last month. “But if we legalize this activity in a proper way, then this would secure income for the state. We should note that the use of marijuana and hashish have become legal in several [other] countries.”
Mahfouz admitted that the only good thing that could arise from legalizing cannabis would be its medicinal use, which would turn the drug from a substance that does you harm into one that does you good.
For Hermel’s hash farmers, however, the debate is moot. Many agree with Mahfouz that such a move would only decrease profits for those currently benefitting from the illegal trade, while others think such legislation is unlikely to ever transpire.
Although most of the drug barons of Lebanon’s border regions conform to the popular stereotype of a flashy, gun-toting drug dealer who has done time, in many ways they are also similar to ordinary farmers elsewhere in the Bekaa Valley.
Not all of them started out wanting to get into this industry, and instead felt forced into the work because of the lack of development in their towns. The hashish business, which comes with minimal costs compared to the revenue, has a massive lure to it.
For Mohammad, 40, it was the death of his father that pushed him into the hash business.
The father of five, who asked to remain anonymous because he was wanted by the authorities for drug dealing, used to work his land within the limits of the law by renting plots to other farmers. All this ground to a halt when the economic depression and tough weather conditions in the area combined to prevent farmers from being able to pay him.
After wracking his brains for another source of income, he finally decided to start cultivating cannabis, tempted by hefty profits that can reach up to thousands of dollars.
“God created hashish just like he created other things,” Mohammad said. “Lebanese hashish is the best in the world.”
Hasan tells a similar story.
During the Civil War, the 50-year-old’s job was fighting alongside a political party.
After the war ended, Hasan, who prefers not to give his last name for security reasons, found himself unemployed with no income to make ends meet. Like Mohammad, he eventually decided he had no other choice but to grow hash.
“We grow to eat,” he said.
For both Hasan and Mohammad, cannabis farming is their only means of survival, and this, they explain, is why they react so strongly against the authorities when they come to raze their fields.
“We took our decision to confront the security forces in case they wanted to damage our season like they did last year,” Hasan said.
In 2013, armed farmers confronted the state and its bulldozers in a violent showdown that was only ended when the government pledged to financially compensate them for any damage to their crops.
But the plan fell through when the Finance Ministry announced it did not have enough money to carry out the plan. Similar government promises to introduce alternative crops have also yet to materialize.
For the moment, it seems the cannabis will keep growing out of the reach of the state.