DAR AL-WASAA, Lebanon: In the impoverished village of Dar al-Wasaa outside Yammouneh, local cannabis farmers are ready to resort to extremes to protect their livelihoods and the cultivation they see as part of their culture.
“Cannabis is a plant given to us by God,” says Mohammad, a local cannabis farmer who defends the cultivation as a way of life in his deprived village. He sits in the shade of a concrete hut from which there is a clear view of the verdant, controversial crops.
Such fields are a normal sight for the residents in these mountainous pockets of the Bekaa Valley, where an Army base silently sits just a kilometer away.
“It’s our life and they come and destroy it,” he continues, referring to the annual eradication sweep by the ISF each August, just ahead of harvest.
This year’s purge was met with resistance. Farmers took up automatic weapons and RPGs – Mohammad’s family among them – to defend their crops, clashing with police and the Lebanese Army earlier in August, disrupting the eradication operation.
“We will fight them to the death if we have to because this is how we make a living. We don’t want to live humiliated,” Mohammad avows.
As tensions persist in the northern Bekaa in areas neglected by government aid and sustained development efforts, cannabis farmers are not the only group to question the efficacy of eradication as drug policy. Drug addiction and agricultural development experts suggest that the country explore options beyond eradication and neglect.
According to Nadya Mikdashi, director of Skoun Lebanese Addiction Center, the eradication efforts amount to “lip service” in the place of a comprehensive policy that addresses the problem from the production side through to consumption and treatment.
“The dialogue on the country level is always, ‘we have a drug problem,’” Mikdashi says. She laments that the discussion is more “ranting and raving” than a genuine effort to meet the problem with targeted solutions.
As an expert in addiction, Mikdashi sees no evidence that eradicating cannabis plants in the Bekaa decreases hashish consumption in Lebanon.
According to statistics compiled by Skoun in a 2010 national needs assessment which surveyed hospitals, treatment centers and NGOs across Lebanon, cannabis is the most common substance consumed by drug users in all age categories, tying only with opioids (heroin) for the 18-34 age group.
Of the nearly 3,000 annual drug arrests reported by the ISF, Mikdashi says that most are for cannabis. The Skoun study also found that drug arrests overall have increased by 54 percent since 2006.
The only effect of the eradication, in Mikdashi’s view, is a temporary spike in prices.
“After August people get cut off from hash and everybody knows. But then it goes back. I would say that for the dealers it’s great because they have a very valuable product,” Mikdashi says.
Col. Adel Mashmoushi, head of the ISF office of drug control, asserts the opposite, firmly defending the importance of destroying the crops to stamp out drug consumption.
“Our policy is very clear. We want to demolish all of the hashish cultivation in the Bekaa,” he says, noting that his unit has seen success in decreasing the overall area used for cannabis cultivation since 2005 when the ISF destroyed close to 64,000 dunums (one dunum is equal to 100 square meters). He estimates that today only 30,000-35,000 dunums are still being used for cannabis cultivation in the Bekaa.
“When we gather our efforts in the country to where they are producing drugs, we can eliminate the source, the illegal cultivation. That way we can confiscate the drugs by tons, it’s very easy compared to searching and seizing drugs by grams or kilos,” he adds.
This year’s operation was halted last week after the clashes and protests in Yammouneh, as well as tire-burning in the Sharawneh and Tal Abyad neighborhoods of Baalbek and Boudai.
Mashmoushi estimates that the operation razed around 6,000 dunums before it was temporarily suspended because “the situation in the Bekaa is very delicate right now” due to “the political and security situation caused by Syria.”
Last week, the government decided to form a committee to examine the issue of cannabis cultivation in the Bekaa and plan a development program for Baalbek and Hermel.
Mashmoushi believes development efforts are essential and says that the issue of eradication has become a “political matter.”
“We should be planning a strategy to confront drugs as well as a strategy to develop our rural areas. All of the ministries should be involved in this strategy, taking into consideration our capabilities, personnel and funding. If we don’t have this strategy in place, no country can give us help or aid,” Mashmoushi explains.
Edgard Chehab, from the United Nations Development Program’s energy and environment project, echoes the need for development, specifically building the market for profitable, alternative crops.
“At the end of the day the farmer doesn’t make the money, it’s the dealer that makes all the money. But [the farmer] makes enough money that there is no other crop that competes with [cannabis],” explains Chehab, who over the last few years has led a pilot study into alternative crops.
The study worked with 55 farmers to test the feasibility of growing industrial hemp, a sister crop of cannabis that can thrive in the same arid conditions but does not produce the illegal, mind-altering substance THC.
The value of hemp lies in its seeds which produce hemp oil that can be used in manufacturing cosmetics, soaps, paints, lubricants and plastics – all existing industries in Lebanon.
The project came from a UNDP assessment requested by former Agriculture Minister Talal Saheli in 2007 to look into the prospects for legalizing cannabis production.
Chehab concluded that legalization of cannabis was not possible due to the fact that it cannot “be a medicine by itself,” unlike opium which under strict regulations can be legalized to produce codeine, the legal precursor to other opiates like opium and heroin. However, the U.N has stringent requirements to regulate poppy production that Lebanon cannot meet.
The next step, says Chehab, was to look for another alternative in industrial hemp, which they found to be extremely successful to produce, but severely lacking on the market end.
“Everything is done from a feasibility point of view, all it needs is the downstream side: the product, who will buy it, a project on the marketability – and that’s where the government should invest,” Chehab asserts.
He believes developing a market for hemp would be more profitable and sustainable in the long term for the government than the compensation idea proposed by Interior Minister Marwan Charbel during his recent visit to Yammouneh. Chehab plans to present his pilot study results to the newly formed government committee.
Chehab realizes that hemp will never compete with the profitability of cannabis – one dunum of cannabis crop is worth around $1,000 and can become even more profitable depending on irrigation, rising to $30,000 per dunum. In comparison, Chehab hopes that the value of one dunum of hemp could be priced at $300, which would rely on government guarantees to tip the scales.
Ali Habib Jaafar has an apple orchard in Dar al-Wasaa. A former cannabis farmer, he opted to grow apples after cannabis production was outlawed in 1992, but has since slid, along with many of his neighbors, into poverty.
“Apples, potatoes, tomatoes, any kind of vegetable or fruit here, if I plant it I’m going to have to spend $6,000 per season on pesticides, taking care of the crops, on farming it. Then when I sell the crops I’m only making $1,500, so I’m losing money.
“I can’t leave my piece of land dry, I have to plant it with produce, but it’s costly. If you want to plant hashish you just plant it and leave it and that’s it. It’s much more lucrative,” explains the 50-year-old farmer who says he chose to abandon cannabis because he didn’t want to be known as an outlaw or hounded by the government.
“After they banned [cannabis], it was a bad situation here. People started going hungry,” he says.
Jaafar has seen many alternative crops come and go, as well as recurring promises of aid and development.
“They’ve been promising alternatives and what they’ve done during these 20 years is bordering on the ridiculous,” he says, explaining how the government would tell them to switch to saffron or tobacco but give them no money for seeds, irrigation or guarantee good prices for the crops.
“In Lebanon, everyone’s a crook,” he laughs. “All the money authorities are taking from the UNDP and other aid to find alternative crops to hashish – they’re stealing it.”
Exacerbating the lack of trust is the fact that farmers and residents feel they are unfairly targeted for growing cannabis when the trade in other drugs, like cocaine and heroin is rife.
Jaafar describes the gap between the problems caused by hashish and harder drugs as “the difference between earth and sky.”
“The politicians have an interest in cocaine and heroin because they take money off of it. They are accomplices in this business because ... small amounts of these drugs make a lot of money, so they turn a blind eye,” Jaafar says.
“[Cannabis farmers] will take up arms and defend themselves because they don’t have any other options.” – Additional reporting by Reem Harb