Hezbollah control of the Bekaa Valley threatened as Lebanon mulls legalising medicinal cannabis

Residents of the Bekaa Valley have long grumbled that Hezbollah uses its political clout to keep the area impoverished.
Sunday 19/08/2018
A worker cultivates plants at a cannabis plantation in the village of Yammouneh in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley. (AFP)
Lucrative crop. A worker cultivates plants at a cannabis plantation in the village of Yammouneh in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley. (AFP)

BEIRUT - In Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, fields of lush green spiky-leaved cannabis plants have reached chest height ahead of harvest in September, which will bring in much-needed cash to farmers in the impoverished region who have grown the illegal crop for decades.

Attempts by the Lebanese government to destroy the crops were met with fierce resistance from farmers who show little compunction in taking to arms to protect their livelihoods.

However, Lebanon is mulling the prospect of legalising cannabis cultivation for medicinal purposes, a step that could bring money to the northern Bekaa Valley and reduce lawlessness in the area. It could also deter young Shia men from the Bekaa Valley from joining the Iran-backed Hezbollah if they have an alternative means of earning an income.

While some farmers are optimistic that legalising cannabis would bring much-needed money to the Bekaa, many express cynicism that it will be locals who benefit.

“The politicians will keep the money and we will have nothing. It has always been this way and legalising hashish will not change anything,” said a member of the powerful Jaafar clan and a major hashish farmer from the northern Bekaa.

Lebanon has toyed with the idea of legalising cannabis cultivation for years but it gained traction recently when McKinsey & Company, the global consultancy firm, recommended it as one way of beefing up Lebanon’s cash-strapped economy.

During Lebanon’s civil war years, the plain of the northern Bekaa was awash with cannabis and opium poppies, generating some $500 million a year. After the war ended, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) began an initiative to eradicate drug crops for alternative legal agriculture.

Within a few years, the Bekaa was deemed drug free but pledged funding for the UNDP effort did not materialise in its entirety and the programme fizzled out by 2002.

Lebanon has been beset the multiple political crises and conflicts since 2005 that allowed farmers to return to cannabis cultivation as security forces often had more pressing demands. The northern Bekaa has a strong tribal society in which loyalty to the clan trumps allegiance to the state and farmers do not hesitate to use weapons against the Lebanese authorities.

It is too early to say how the Lebanese government will organise legal cannabis cultivation but it will likely run along similar lines to tobacco in which a farmer is given a licence to grow a certain quantity that will then be purchased by the state at an agreed price.

Much will depend on how the process is governed and policed. The legalisation of cannabis cultivation will likely send black-market prices soaring as the crop is sold to the state at a fixed rate rather than to drug dealers as in the past. While some cannabis is sold domestically, most of it is exported to Europe and the Gulf countries, generating huge profits for the dealers, if not the farmers.

If the price of black-market cannabis escalates significantly due to the reduction of available quantities, it could encourage farmers to grow an additional field of cannabis out of sight to sell to dealers while the authorised crop is sold to the state at a lower rate. It is unclear in a country where corruption is rife whether authorities have the means and will to ensure only licensed crops are grown.

“This is Lebanon. They [the farmers] will find a way to beat the system. A farmer could grow 3 dunams of hashish for the government and around the corner, hidden away, another dunam for himself,” said Abbas, a long-standing cannabis farmer from a village near Baalbek. A dunam is approximately equivalent to 900 square metres.

One party that has yet to publicly comment on the proposal to legalise cannabis is Hezbollah.

The Bekaa Valley is known as the “barracks of Hezbollah” and has been its main recruiting pool since the organisation crystallised in the early 1980s. In recent years, the scale of recruitment has soared as Hezbollah urgently needed combatants to fight in Syria on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The traditionally rigorous nature of the recruitment process in which a candidate undergoes an extensive vetting process, intensive religious and ideological studies and thorough military training all lasting more than a year was replaced in some cases with a mere month-long training course at camps in the Bekaa before being dispatched to Syria’s battlefields.

Residents of the Bekaa Valley have long grumbled that Hezbollah uses its political clout to keep the area impoverished so people are dependent on the organisation. A recruit can earn $600 a month and have access to Hezbollah’s extensive social welfare system of schools, hospitals and clinics. That can be a powerful incentive for joining when there is a dearth of other income opportunities.

Hezbollah, however, is beginning to feel a backlash from some quarters of the Bekaa Valley. Although Hezbollah fared well in the elections in May, many Shia residents of the Bekaa refused to vote or chose anti-Hezbollah candidates in a sign of dissatisfaction with the party.

Hezbollah will have to work hard to shore up its support base in the Bekaa, especially with the civil war in Syria beginning to ease and thousands of fighters expected to return to Lebanon.

If — and it remains a big if — cannabis is legalised and a system is introduced that provides comfortable earnings for farmers, it could threaten to chip away at Hezbollah’s recruitment pool and even encourage recently joined fighters to quit the organisation.