High times in Lebanon: Hashish grows again

Published June 12th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Adnan waters his lush three hectares (seven acres) of green cannabis crop, nestled away safely high up in eastern Lebanon's mountainous Bekaa valley. Lebanon's lean economic times have pushed Lebanese farmers in the Bekaa ― blessed with bubbling streams pouring from Mount Lebanon ― to their tried and true cash crop, cannabis. 


"After the eradication of illegal growing in 1993, I had switched to sugar beets. But the state has lifted its subsidies, so I have returned to good old hashish," Adnan says, grinning widely. 


Nonetheless, drug experts in Lebanon say the current drug crop is at one-tenth of the levels reached in 1990, the final year of the country's 15-year civil war. 


During the civil war, a breakdown in governmental authority, protection from militias and the functioning of dozens of ports as routes for trafficking allowed the the drug trade to flourish. Cannabis and poppy plants, from which opium is extracted, were cultivated on some 500,000 hectares (1.23 million acres). 


Drug experts put Lebanon's drug trade at around four billion dollars in 1989, more than 20 percent of the country's GDP at the time. 


However in 1992, eager to re-establish its authority, the Lebanese government launched a crackdown on the drug trade and received foreign aid from the United Nations for a crop substitution program. 


Unfortunately, Lebanon never attracted the financial aid it hoped for to stave off the drug trade permanently. 


Now, with the Lebanese government striving to pay back some of its massive debt, can it afford to wrestle a resurgent drug trade, or will the illicit cash influx prove too tempting? 


For Adnan and his neighbor Ibrahim, the return to cannabis has eased their lives after subsisting on other crops, such as sugar beets and potatoes, for the past seven years. 

"Because the peasants suffer from hunger, they dare to brave the official ban," Adnan says. 


He says that while he can make only $5,000 from cultivating a hectare (2.5 acres) of potatoes, he can earn $10,000 from a hectare of hashish. "Draw your own conclusion," he says. Ibrahim says the drug trade allows him to finance his eldest son's university studies. 


At the moment, the government continues its patrols without penetrating the core drug-growing regions. In March, when army helicopters flew over drug planters' lands and the government appealed to local mayors to fight the trade, it provoked angry protests from parliament members in the Bekaa, notably from the Lebanese Shiite party Hizbullah, which is backed by Syria, Lebanon's main powerbroker. 


Hezbollah responded by accusing the government of bullying the impoverished population. The Bekaa serves as the military headquarters for Damascus' estimated 35,000 troops in Lebanon. 


And, with little government enforcement since spring, some 150 of the area's 2,000 villages by the eastern hubs of Baalbek and Hermel have grown brazen in cultivating cannabis. 


At first, the farmers were cautious, choosing spots accessible only by dirt roads, with their fields hidden beneath tall plants like sun flowers. But now plants can be seen along busy routes and creeping south toward the Bekaa valley.  


Security services estimate that cannabis is now planted on 35,000 hectares (86,450 acres), which could spread to 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) by harvest time. Poppy plants have still not surpassed 1,500 hectares (3,705 acres). ― (AFP, Bekaa Valley) 


by Hikmat Shreif 


© Agence France Presse 2001

© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)

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