In Lebanon, producers of hashish are victims… of overproduction

"Allow us to export cannabis and the dollars will come back," say the farmers.

A field of cannabis in the Beqaa Valley. Photo P.K.

In Yammoune, a van carrying Syrian workers enters a field bordered by apple trees and grape vines. In this area of the Beqaa valley, the economy has always depended on hashish, either enriching or impoverishing its residents. This year has been a particular dark and somber one.

Carrying white tarps, women wearing colorful clothes, men and children head to work. They pick buds of cannabis off the ground that were cut the week before and left to dry in the su,. Once they are completely dry, the plants will be used to make cannabis resin. But this year, Ali, who came to supervise the labor in his field, is not in the mood to work.

Ali is in his 30s, tall with dark hair and the father of three children. "It's going from bad to worse,” he said. “Last year we sold close to nothing, and this year is looking even worse because prices have collapsed. In the best case scenario, we will sell a kilo for between $80 and $100.”

Standing beside Ali, Tony from Deir el-Ahmar, another cannabis producing region, like all areas of Baalbeck-Hermel, agrees. "It will be a blessing if we will be able to sell one single kilo. We're left with stocks from last year and the year before," he said, nostalgic for the days when a kilogram sold for $1,200 or $1,500.

Victims of overproduction, cannabis farmers in the Beqaa now long for the time a few years ago when the Lebanese State was fighting against the cultivation of Indian hemp, burning entire fields. When Syrian refugees began arriving in the Beqaa, the authorities stopped destroying the crops to prevent protests from the already impoverished host community. For a few years now, planting and irrigation of the fields has been done openly.

Today, in some recently planted fields (planting takes place after the Feast of the Cross on Sept. 14) the plants are clearly visible. All over the valley, cannabis fields are located on the sides of main roads and even close to army checkpoints; cultivation is even taking place on state property. "The moment someone does not build on the land, anyone owning a plot that is adjacent to municipal land can expand his productivity as he sees fit," Hussein, another cannabis producer from Yammoune, said.

Exporting is impossible

The price of cannabis collapsed to $100 per kilo because farmers in the Beqaa have started planting hemp again, taking advantage of the leniency from authorities. "Last year, 60 percent of the Baalbeck-Hermel locality cultivated cannabis. This year, the percentage is probably a bit less," said Talal Chreif, chairman of Yammoune’s town council. "For the past two years farmers have not been able to sell their goods. They store it in their barns because of the lack of buyers and end up planting less. This is due to severe security measures in maritime and air customs; although given the situation in Syria, traffic by land has become far more expensive.”

As a result, supply has out stripped demand, and last year, the price of cannabis––80 percent of which is destined for export––fell to $150 per kilogram. Last year’s merchandise, like the crop from 2016, hasn’t been sold yet and is laying in the farmers’ barns.

Like all perishable goods, cannabis resin cannot be stored forever. After four or five years, it is no longer suitable for consumption.

The proliferation of militias in neighboring Syria, that impose fees for passing through their territory, as well as tighter border controls, have not helped matters. "Before the war in Syria, the goods were transported by land. This is no longer the case today because of the different forces on the ground," Hussein said.

It is no longer profitable for traffickers to send cannabis via Syria because they will have to pay several factions to transport the goods. Before the war, bribes only had to be paid to the soldiers or customs officers.

Due regional instability, security has been reinforced at the borders, including air and sea. "Lebanese security forces are on the alert, looking for weapons leaving Lebanon. Due to increased security measures, the police, army and customs are also on the lookout for drugs. Many people have lost millions of dollars in recent years because their drugs have been seized from maritime borders or from the airport," Elie, a resident of Deir el- Ahmar, explained.

"During the past three months, more than a dozen people in Deir el-Ahmar have been arrested for drug trafficking. Instead of doing this, it would have been more useful for the police to destroy the production in the fields. Perhaps then the prices will increase. I honestly do not understand why the State allows people to grow cannabis only to then prevent them from exporting it... It's making our work ineffective and pointless," continued Elie.

“Only cannabis can grow over here. What are we supposed to do?” Ali asked. His friend Tony adds: "We tried to plant corn but the ears came out too small. As for apples, cultivating them costs way too much. In order to grow 20 dunams of apples (an Ottoman unit of measurement equivalent to about 1,000 square meters) one would need an investment of $10,000 (between irrigation, fertilizer and more), while we would only need $2,000 to invest in cannabis, using the same area.”

"Cannabis should become comparable to tobacco"

During the 1990s, Lebanon, with support from the United Nations, adopted a plan to eradicate cannabis cultivation through a program that would allow farmers in the Beqaa to replace cannabis. But the plan fizzled out. "Let the State buy our crops and allow cannabis to become comparable to tobacco: a crop that would be sold directly to the State. This way, we will be able to pay our bills, raise our children and live in peace,” Tony said.

Last year, Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s Speaker of the House, discussed the possibility of legalizing the sale of cannabis for medicinal purposes following a proposal made by McKinsey International Consulting, which developed an economic reform plan at the request of the government.

"This proposal has had no follow-up. We have seen more journalists than actual officials come to us to inquire about our situation,” Chreif, the president of Yammoune’s city council, said.

The city council conducted a study on the usefulness of cannabis that was supposed to be submitted to Parliament. The study listed the many beneficial uses of Indian hemp, including the medicinal uses of pure cannabis oil, which has proven effective at relieving chronic pain and as a treatment for certain forms of epilepsy, according to various studies. Chreif also mentioned that cannabis grain can be used as feedstock for poultry. The stems and leaves contain very good fiber that, like linen, can be transformed into fabrics. They are also used for the manufacturing of perfumes and cosmetics and as part of the composition of fiberglass and contain cellulose, which is used to make paint.

"People are hungry"

"They say that the Beqaa is not a safe area; that there is an increasing amount of outlaws and thugs in this region... The reason is that people are hungry. What would you suggest they do? Let them allow us to grow and sell our goods, and that way everyone will be happy," insisted Ali.

"They (Lebanese leaders) claim that there is an economic crisis; a shortage of dollars... Let them export cannabis and the dollars will come back,” Elie said. "Lebanon used to export the largest amount of its resin to Egypt. Today, Turkey and Morocco have supplanted us."

According to Hussein, the resin from Yammoune tastes the best. He also mentioned Egypt. "Former president Anwar al-Sadat loved our resin. Each pulp that we export is stamped with a flower. Our cannabis is known as the flower of the mountain (zahret el-jabal)," he said. "The heads of Yammoune’s cannabis are the best. Our village is far from all factories. We have 316 water sources, and cannabis is watered (once every 10 days) with drinking water, like everything else we plant. The village is surrounded by the highest mountains of Lebanon, including Sannine, Makmel and Qornet es-Saouda, which provide the growing cannabis with fresh air and clean dew every morning," he said.

Like many people in his village, Hussein has a small workshop under his house where he converts the cannabis crops into resin. All you have to do is dry the plant, sift it several times and compose the resins according to the size of the sieve used. The more oily the dough, the better its quality.

"Depending on the year, one cultivated dunam can produce seven to eight kilos of resin," Hussein said, adding: "Cannabis cultivators have never really gotten rich. The cultivation of cannabis has helped us to survive; to pay the children’s schooling, the oil for heating, the bills... Today, with the decrease of the prices and the unlikelihood of selling our product, we have become desperately poor."

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 26th of september)

In Yammoune, a van carrying Syrian workers enters a field bordered by apple trees and grape vines. In this area of the Beqaa valley, the economy has always depended on hashish, either enriching or impoverishing its residents. This year has been a particular dark and somber one. Carrying white tarps, women wearing colorful clothes, men and children head to work. They pick buds of cannabis off the...