BAALBEK, Lebanon: In a few days Lebanon’s cannabis farmers will begin their harvest and reap the yield of their cultivation, despite attempts by the security services to eradicate the plant.
For the first time since 1992 – when the government began destroying the plant – nearly all of the country’s crop of cannabis will be collected. The government backed off eradication efforts earlier this summer after farmers blocked roads and fired at security forces attempting to destroy cannabis fields.
Preparation for the confrontation began several months ago, and was planned by farmers and clans who say they are fed up with the area’s deprivation and the failure of various governments to develop the Baalbek-Hermel region.
Abu Hussein Shamas, a member of one of the area’s notorious clans, does not hesitate to reveal that he plants cannabis and that he participated in the clashes in the village of Yammouneh in Baalbek.
He believes poverty forces area residents to depend on cannabis, given the relative ease of planting the crop and its ability to withstand disease. Ten dunums of cannabis can bring $15,000-$20,000 in a season – this pays tuition for Shamas’ children and his other living costs.
Shamas adds that many farmers feel taken for granted by larger political interests, a fact that contributed to their decision to take a stand this year.
“For several months we have been working to establish a group of the area’s clans so as to prevent representatives of political parties from making decisions for us. These parties control the state’s apparatuses, and use them for their own private interests. They send the security forces to arrest those they have problems with, forcing these people to later seek their help to get out of prison.”
Readying for the harvest, Shamas explains how it is done: The stalks are cut just above the roots, and spread out on the ground to dry in the sun for a few days. They are then taken to warehouses, where the seeds are split from their casings.
The dried stalks are then crushed and a mixture of seeds, casings, and plants are ground into a dark yellow powder. They are packed into nylon bags and the air is squeezed out of them.
After processing, much of the country’s cannabis yield is exported, by land, sea and occasionally through the airport, where some officials are in on the smuggling. Much of the drug goes to Europe, and only small quantities are kept for sale in Lebanon.
A source in the Internal Security Forces’ Drug Control Office argues that justifications like Shamas’ are invalid, as poverty was rife in the area long before cannabis farming was widespread. He says that only 4,000 people benefit from planting cannabis in Baalbek-Hermel, and most are wealthy large-scale farmers and dealers.
As for small-scale farmers like Shamas, the source says they are trapped by the cannabis trade even though they could easily profit from cultivating a variety of other plants.
Adding that cannabis destruction has been indiscriminate across Lebanon, the source says that “no one is immune in the campaign to eradicate drugs.”
As evidence for this, he cites the closing of a Captagon pill factory earlier this year in the Bekaa village of Nabisheet. The factory was owned by a brother of Hezbollah MP Hussein Moussawi.
Currently, there are multiple arrest warrants for security personnel who have accepted bribes to cover up for the work of dealers, the source says, adding that the security forces face major hurdles if they are acting on their own in blocking the movement of cannabis after it is processed.
Beirut’s port receives several ships daily, each of which holds around 5,000 shipping containers. Without the latest equipment, finding smuggled drugs is a near impossibility.
The source believes the forces need restructuring, and that members of the Drug Control Office should have fixed checkpoints at land and maritime crossings, as well as at the airport. These personnel, he says, are better equipped to catch smugglers than customs officials.
According to the source, four drug smuggling networks were uncovered in the past month. But that does not deter Shamas and his fellow farmers, whose success this year will likely ensure they plant again widely in the coming season.