BAALBEK, Lebanon: Security forces began eradicating the country’s cannabis fields Monday morning, prompting locals to fight back, leaving one policeman lightly wounded.
A joint force from the Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese Army began destroying cannabis crop at around 8 a.m., acting on the instructions of the Central Office for Drug Control. Also taking part in the action were tractor owners, who are paid for their efforts.
Security sources, who spoke to The Daily Star on the condition of anonymity, said gunmen fired at the force and two police vehicles were hit during skirmishes near Boudai on the outskirts of Baalbek. Automatic weapons and RPGs were used in the clashes, which lasted for several minutes.
The policeman suffered only a minor injury in his back thanks to a bullet proof vest, the security sources said. The shooters fled the scene.
Armed men also smashed tractors as their drivers returned from the action in Boudai. The National News Agency said 15 tractors were attacked in Ain al-Sawda, and the drivers said their attackers warned them against taking part in the crackdown.
Colonel Adel Mashmoushi, the head of the CODC, defended the eradication, which destroyed 300 dunums of cannabis in Talya Boudai and Hermel Monday.
If cannabis is not destroyed, “drugs will spread in Lebanese society,” Mashmoushi said, adding that security forces will not open fire on populated civilian areas but will respond to gunfire.
Mashmoushi, who called cannabis a “dangerous poison,” said that the operation will continue until the final cannabis plant is destroyed. He stressed that this was a local priority but added that “everybody knows that if we do not destroy cannabis ... this will tarnish Lebanon’s reputation on an international level.”
In protest at the eradication campaign, farmers and their relatives used burning tires to block roads in the Sharawneh and Tel Abyad neighborhoods of Baalbek and in Boudai. They accused Mashmoushi and the Cabinet of depriving them of their main source of income, given what they called extreme negligence on the part of the state. They argued that the area has been poor and marginalized for decades, and attempts to offer substitute crops for cannabis have not been sufficient.
Security forces reopened the roads by 11 a.m.
Some 30 bulldozers and tractors took part in the crackdown, and Mashmoushi specifically thanked security forces and local tractor owners for their role.
Responding to reporters’ suggestions that poverty drives farmers to grow cannabis, Mashmoushi said some plants are irrigated with expensive technology, and “one dunum costs $1,500 [to irrigate and plant],” suggesting that to grow a larger crop is a costly undertaking.
“These plants deprive the Bekaa of all legitimate sources of making a living,” he said. “God willing, in the coming days will prove how serious the state is in this move, we will continue to destroy cannabis ... until the last plant is eradicated and there is political cover for [cannabis] farmers.”
Mashmoushi declined to go into detail on investigations into a recently discovered drug trafficking network. “Recently we uncovered a large drug trafficking network, and unfortunately some who have bad intentions, and others who were deceived, attempted to mislead investigations.” He warned that attempts to evade or mislead investigations would be unsuccessful.
Cannabis has long flourished in the fertile Bekaa Valley. Although the government banned the plant in 1992 and began annual campaigns to destroy it, farmers continue to grow the plant.
Campaigns to encourage farmers switch to other crops such as sunflowers, saffron and tobacco have been unsuccessful on a large scale, as the crops were either unsuited to the local environs or not as profitable as cannabis.