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Political Crisis Nets Largest Cannabis Crop Since Civil War

Smokin Moose

Fallen Cannabis Warrior
With the Army Busy With Security and Its Battle in Nahr AL-Bared, None of the Annual Cannabis-Eradication Projects Have Been Carried Out

BAALBEK: Sporting a grey and green suit and a watch with golden trimmings, Abu Abbas takes a long drag from his cigarette, smiles, exhales into a room already filled with smoke, and declares that "business is good." His freshly cut fields of cannabis are being prepared for consumption.

"When there is political instability, business is always good," says Abu Abbas, 40, who like scores of other farmers in Baalbek, has benefited from the ongoing political crisis in the country. Like many others, he decided this year not to plant conventional crops like potatoes, opting instead to grow the more profitable cannabis plant.

According to the farmers interviewed, the cannabis industry is at its best this year, with the rate of production in 2007 matching that of the "golden years" of drug cultivation during the 1975-90 Civil War, when militias and warlords raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from the industry.

"The army couldn't get to us this year, it was busy with other crises," says Abu Abbas.

Away from the main roads and beyond the fields of grapes and tomatoes lay hundreds of hectares of freshly cut fields of cannabis. Much of the abundant marijuana harvest is being processed into hashsish in hidden workshops in the mountainous area of Baalbek, near the Syrian border.

For over a decade, the Lebanese Army, in coordination with the Police Drugs and Narcotics Special Combat force, has been battling the "illegal crops" by burning the fields of opium and cannabis cultivated by the local farmers.

Head of the Internal Security Forces General Major Ashraf Rifi confirms that the security apparatus did indeed miss the "hashish season" this year, due to recent deadly conflict in the northern refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared between the Lebanese Army and the Al-Qaeda inspired militants of Fatah al-Islam.

"Opium season is earlier than that of hashish, and so when the season for hashish came around, the army was preoccupied with the Nahr al-bared conflict," Rifi tells The Daily Star.

The conflict began in May and lasted for three months, claiming about 400 lives - making it the worst internal fighting in Lebanon since the Civil War.

The small Lebanese Army has been under unusually great strain this past year, between battling Islamists, guarding the year-long opposition sit-in in downtown Beirut, enforcing its presence in the South near the Israeli border, and clamping down on illegal arms smuggling across the Syrian border.

The army was able to eradicate some opium fields, about 8 hectares in 2007 and 22 hectors in 2006, according to statistics released by the Police Drugs and Narcotics Combat unit.

The overall production of opium in Lebanon has been drastically reduced since the end of the Civil War. Authorities have closed down factories specializing in the production of heroin and other opium-derived drugs, most of which were established in the 1980s.

But these measures were met with only limited success: It was estimated in 1990 that around 1,500 hectares of opium fields were planted, compared to 3,000 hectares of cannabis.

According to the same statistics, the army destroyed 388 hectors of cannabis in 2006, and undertook "no eradication" in 2007.

"We send in regular patrols and investigators," says Rifi, adding that the police who find illegal crops call in the army for the eradication operations.

"It is a very serious operation, as some of the residents resist with weapons," he says.

"Drugs are illegal, whether one takes them, grows them, or sells them, and each of the violators face a different penalty," says Rifi.

The production of hashish is nothing new in the Bekaa Valley. Cultivated off and on for centuries, popularized by the Turks of the Ottoman empire, but hashsish first gained notoriety from an 11th-century sect, the "assassins." It was said that members would indulge in hashish consumption before undertaking killing assignments - - hence the term "assassin" derived from the Arabic hashashin.

More recently, the "red Lebanon" variety gained fame and became the household name for Lebanese hashish - allegedly called that due to the red soil in which it grows - and it sells for $1,200 per kilo.

Drugs dealers told The Daily Star that most of the drugs cultivated in Lebanon get exported to Europe, and a large amount to Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The drugs are then sold for two to three times their price - in Saudi Arabia the prices reach as high as $4,000 a kilo.

Locals from the conservative and predominantly Shiite town of Baalbek, an area covered with posters and banners bearing Hizbullah and Amal slogans, openly discuss the culture of drug cultivation.

"It is routine, we are not ashamed to talk about it," says Abu Ali, 37, a farmer who openly grows illegal crops, and at times tobacco if authorities destroy the illegal plants.

"Families here protect each other against the government and authorities," he says, as he anxiously thumbles with a chain of black prayer beads.

Hawr Taala, one of the strongest drug holds in Baalbek, is the best example of this fortified local protection. Visitors get hooded and blindfolded before meeting the drug lords, whom the locals identify as the "Masri Family."

"There is no government to help us, and so when we are faced with economic problems, we help ourselves," says Abu Ali, echoing the sentiments of most residents in Baalbek.

"Everybody's growing it, every single farmer," he says.

"The political parties follow the policy of starvation, so we are forced to go to them for help," he adds, without identifying the actual parties.

Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, a member of Hizbullah's politburo, says his party knows about the drug trade, and opposes it both "religiously and politically," but cannot stop it.

"Residents of Baalbek are extremely poor, and so they turn to the only means of making money, and that is, regrettably, through growing drugs," says Abu Zeinab.

Last week, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora formed a special committee, composed of United Nations and local officials, to study the developmental capabilities in the Baalbek-Hermel area.

Preliminary reports from the committee indicated the great "difficulty" in finding sustainable cultivation of alternative crops of similar gain as those of the illegal crops.

"The army burns down the fields, and the officials make a show of this to the world of how they are fighting corruption and drugs, but leave the farmers with no plan, no replacement or alternatives upon which they can live on," says Abu Zeinab.

There have been several UN-backed programs and non-governmental projects launched over the past 10 years to assist farmers in Baalbek and surrounding areas in finding sustainable means of livelihood. However, none of them has proven successful or sustainable, due to an apparent lack of commitment on the part of officials and the overall instability in the country.

"The farmers want to survive on other means, many want a way out from the drug trade, but haven't been given a way to do that," says Abu Zeinab, blaming the government for not providing that "other" way out.

A part from the boom in the illegal harvest this year, there might be some less visible and more dangerous repercussions from the ongoing political crisis, with Lebanon increasingly turning from a country that export drugs, to a country of consumers of drugs.

"In the last couple of years, there has been an increase in [drug use] among youth," said Mouna Yazigi, general manager of Oum al-Nour, an non-governmental organization dealing with Lebanese drug addicts.

"When there is instability and crisis and no future, people turn to drugs," she said.

Source: Daily Star, The (Lebanon)
Copyright: 2007 The Daily Star
Contact: opinion@dailystar.com.lb
Website: The Daily Star - Lebanon - The Middle East's Leading English Language Newspaper
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