Lebanese Government Looks the Other Way as Farmers Harvest Hash Crop, Poppies Now Being Planted 11/30/01

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DRCNet reported in June on the revival of hashish production in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley a decade after the Lebanese government suppressed the traditional crop in 1992 (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/191.html#bekaavalley). Driven by poverty and the lack of viable alternatives, farmers in the valley this year turned by the thousands back to their most reliable cash crop, cannabis, which is typically processed in hashish. As the Lebanese government became aware of the scope of renewed production last summer, it threatened to destroy any such crops and jail their owners for up to life. It didn't happen.

By September, brazen farmers had turned the valley, long a stronghold of smugglers and the Hezbollah militia, into an emerald sea of flowering cannabis. According to Middle East Online, by fall cannabis plants were easily visible from main roads and about 150 of the region's 2000 villages had turned back to the herb. By October, it had all been harvested. And the government stayed away. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, caught between the need for international aid partially dependent on drug eradication on one hand and threats of violent resistance from farmers on the other, quietly chose to maintain domestic tranquility over foreign favor. The government made no formal announcement, but its lack of action spoke louder than words.

As had been the case in the past, especially during the period of civil war and lawlessness in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the government's failure to move against the cannabis crop has now inspired farmers to plant even more profitable opium poppies, the British newspaper the Guardian reported this week. As a result, the Lebanese government has once again resorted to threats -- but no action -- against poppy farmers. "The armed forces and security bureaus have been ordered -- on finding any patch of land planted with opium -- to destroy it and go after its owners, its farmers, and anyone who proves to be involved in spreading this poisonous substance," interior minister Elias al-Murr told Reuters.

But the government faces severe economic, political and military obstacles if it moves to enforce its edicts against cannabis and opium. The Bekaa Valley is the military headquarters for some 35,000 Syrian troops who have been in Lebanon since the civil war years, as well as the powerful and popular Shiite militia Hezbollah. Hezbollah, which also controls a bloc in the Lebanese parliament, accused the government of picking on the impoverished population of the Bekaa by threatening to destroy their cannabis crops.

If all of that wasn't enough, the valley is also home to thousands of armed and desperate farmers who would rather confront the Lebanese state than endure more poverty. Last month, reporters for Middle East Online interviewed cannabis and opium farmers who made their intentions clear. According to a farmer identified only as Mehdi, the only way to stop the trade was for the Lebanese government to supply long-promised but never delivered alternative development assistance. "When we get the long-promised money for alternative crops, we will start discussing. Turkey and Morocco got a lot of money for the eradication of drugs, while we accepted to stop it at once for peanuts," he said. "We will never accept hunger like we were forced to do in 1992. We will use arms if we have to," warned Mehdi, who like most members of the tribal clans of the region owns a multitude of weapons.

Farmer Mehdi also had some economic advice for the Lebanese government. "Lebanon suffers from a debt of more than 25 billion dollars. Cash from drugs is the best way to help pay it back," he suggested.

The drug trade was big business in Lebanon during the civil war, with local experts valuing the trade at around $4 billion -- more than 20% of the country's Gross Domestic Product -- at its peak in 1989. This year's 100,000 planted and harvested acres of cannabis, while a huge increase from recent years, is estimated by Lebanese law enforcement to be only 10% of production at its peak in the late 1980s.

While farmer Mehdi was talking macroeconomics, other farmers who spoke to the Middle East Online had microeconomic concerns. "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," said farmer Adnan. He said while he could make only $2,000 for an acre of potatoes, he could double that with an acre of cannabis. "Draw your own conclusion," he said. He added that he and his fellows would continue to ignore the government edicts. "Because the peasants suffer from hunger, they dare to brave the official ban," he said.

Besides, argued another farmer, what's the big deal? "Hashish is not harmful," said farmer Salim. "It is allowed in many western and advanced states, even for medical and healing purposes."

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Issue #213, 11/30/01 Editorial: Economic Realities | Proposed New Medical Marijuana Initiative Would Create State-Controlled Medical Marijuana Distribution System | Feds Lose "Crack House" Case Against Florida Rave Club Owners | Rave Wars Come to Austin: Cops Threaten Club Owners, Promoters, Negotiations Under Way | Western Australia Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession, Approves Heroin Trials, Rejects Safe Injecting Rooms | The Good, the Bad and the Well-Deserved: Needle Exchange Updates on San Diego, Albuquerque and Chicago | European Drug Monitoring Center Releases Annual Report: Concerns About Cocaine, Ecstasy, HIV/AIDS | Lebanese Government Looks the Other Way as Farmers Harvest Hash Crop, Poppies Now Being Planted | The Souder Files: This Week's Words of Wisdom | Higher Education Act Reform Campaign Gains New Endorsements | Media Scan: National Review on Medical Marijuana | Alerts: HEA Drug Provision, Drug Czar Nomination, Sembler Nomination, DEA Hemp Ban, Ecstasy Bill, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar

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