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Lebanon's budding hashish business brings high returns

Cannabis production in Lebanon has soared by more than 30% since 2012, when spillover from the war in Syria led security forces to focus on deadlier threats like car bombs and Islamic militants.

Abou Ali’s business is flourishing. A hundred meters behind his two-story house in the Bekaa Valley lies a field of red-brown, crumbly earth. He has just planted the season’s crop. “You know the red soil is what gives our most famous hashish its name: Red Lebanese.”

Outside sits a black SUV with blacked-out windows and no license plates. Abou Ali, who did not want to give his full name, is 52 years old with cropped, gray hair, his T-shirt stretched over his bulging stomach. There is a handgun tucked into the waistband of his jeans.

As the war in Syria has escalated, claiming over 400,000 lives, Abou Ali has seen his business grow by 60%. With Lebanese security forces focused on internal threats, he has expanded cannabis production to 300 acres and hired 40 workers, “all Syrians.” After the harvest, they will process the spiky-leafed plant at 50 different locations spread around the valley. After sifting and drying the resin, he will have 1,000 kilos of hashish, earning him more than $3 million a year.

Though cultivating the plant is illegal, cannabis fields are a common sight in the Bekaa. They dot the fertile valley, wedged between fields of wheat and cherry trees. In four months' time, the plants will be ready to harvest, permeating the air with the smell of the sticky cannabis resin. The country is the third biggest hashish producer in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

During Lebanon's civil war (1975-1990), the cultivation of cannabis and opium boomed. Abou Ali reminisces about those good old days when he would drive trucks piled high with hashish past checkpoints, unbothered.

After the war, there were several attempts to eradicate it. A US aid plan tried to get hashish growers to switch to dairy farming in the '90s. However, corruption led to the 3,000 imported cows being sold off. “It was all lies,” Abou Ali remembers.

Since 2000, growers have mostly been left alone, aside from annual efforts to crack down just ahead of harvest time. Every summer, hundreds of acres were cleared by bulldozers, often causing clashes between farmers and the army. A confrontation in 2012 saw rockets fired, and casualties. From then on, faced with spillover from the war in Syria, the security forces focused their efforts on internal threats like car bombs and Islamic militants. As a result, hashish production has increased exponentially.

Cannabis is grown on almost 9,000 acres throughout the country, says Gen. Ghassan Chamseddine, head of a drug enforcement unit. His Beirut office is filled with tokens of appreciation from other law enforcement agencies like the DEA. But he has been unable to stop production soaring by more than 30% since 2012. “Every farmer in the Bekaa thought, well, if the government doesn’t eradicate it, why don’t I grow it?” says Chamseddine.

His small unit of 65 people do their best to rein in the practice. But he feels his hands are tied. Politically, there is little goodwill — indeed, the politicians themselves are often involved in the drug trade. Abou Ali says he ensures his shipments are secure by finding “someone in government who can help.” In addition to paying bribes, he has another way to guarantee his contact will deliver. “We keep an eye on his family, so that they are in reach, just to be sure,” he says.

The powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, whose yellow-and-green flags flutter along the road to Abou Ali’s house, also turns a blind eye.

Chamseddine’s unit does not have a mandate to search goods entering or leaving the country. “We are not allowed to set up any checkpoint for drugs — not at the airport, not at the harbor, nowhere,” he says. He is also unable to pay informants, as his unit hasn't the budget for it. “This is our policy … every country in the world understands that nobody can fight drugs without a budget. In Lebanon, we have no budget. You must fight with just your muscles,” he says.

Sometimes, his unit gets lucky. In the basement, a windowless room serves as a drug depot. Suitcases full of cocaine, millions of Captagon pills and boxes full of amphetamines line the walls. Beside the door is a 3-meter-high pile of white sacks. They contain flat tablets of hashish the size of a car's side mirror, individually wrapped in black plastic. When an officer cuts one open with a small pocketknife, the smell is pungent. This shipment was part of their largest catch so far: 5,500 kilos of hashish hidden in a shipment of apples headed to Europe.

But Chamseddine is weary of taking on the country’s powerful drug lords, who belong to influential clans and are often armed to the teeth. “Fighting them with 30 men is like a suicide operation. … It’s like fighting naked. These criminals have all kinds of weapons and machine guns, and you will only go with your Kalashnikov,” he says, visually frustrated.

When the military steps in to raid a drug lord, the target usually escapes, tipped off long before soldiers burst through the door. Last month, for example, Ali Nasri Shamas, a renowned drug kingpin from the area, saw his weapons cache and drugs seized in a raid. But there was no sign of the man himself, who had frequently boasted about his drug empire and liked showing off his weapons arsenal to the media.

Chamseddine is hoping the new government, installed in December last year, will restart the eradication of the cannabis crop, saying, “I am optimistic that we will try again this year.” He pauses. “I hope so.”

The cannabis plants, meanwhile, continue to grow. Abou Ali is looking forward to his best harvest in years. “The longer the instability lasts, the more I am able to grow,” he says happily.

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