YAMMOUNEH, Lebanon (AFP) — The sun-soaked cannabis fields are just out of reach of a nearby army checkpoint. Its production is lucrative in Lebanon, but growers fear legalizing its medical use could slash profits.
The remote territory surrounding the northeastern Lebanese town of Yammouneh is blanketed in the potent plant, harvested and sold by powerful families.
“All these red-shingled houses around us have been built with marijuana money,” says a local grower, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid legal troubles.
Lebanon bans growing, selling, and consuming cannabis, but the underground trade developed over decades into a multi-million dollar industry pumping resin into other countries.
Lawmakers are now considering legalizing its medical use, following a recommendation this year by consulting firm McKinsey that doing so could boost Lebanon’s faltering economy.
But growers and distributors fear government regulation would eat away at their revenue, or see bigger corporate players run them out of business altogether.
“We don’t have a problem with legalization, but the primary beneficiary must be the grower,” says Yammouneh’s deputy mayor Hussein Shreif.
He spoke to AFP during a tour of the town, where many residents are involved in the trade.
Growers prefer the current “free market” system, Shreif says, because they can sell to “big traffickers to make 10 times more money.”
“If the state gets involved, the profit won’t be the same.”
Cannabis production blossomed during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 war, and authorities struggled to clamp down on the trade after the conflict ended.
Security forces regularly bust attempted drug exports at Beirut airport and have even gone to the source, destroying thousands of acres of cannabis fields.
UN-backed programs have tried to persuade farmers to switch those fields into vineyards, with little success.
Cannabis cultivators claim that no other crop can survive the arid climate of Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa.
“If you tossed hashish on a pile of pebbles, it’d take root. You see it on the roadside and on piles of trash,” says the grower.
In Lebanon, cannabis is typically planted in spring and harvested in September, then sun-dried for three days, chilled and pressed.
Yammouneh’s farmers say they sell their product to distributors at an average of $400 per kilo, more if it is of a higher quality.
Distributors then either sell to local consumers for several times that price, or export it.
In 2016, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Lebanon as the third main source of cannabis resin after Morocco and Afghanistan, which are both much larger.
Lebanon’s exports go mainly to nearby markets in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey, and even arch-foe Israel.
Some of those countries have legalized medical marijuana, which can be used to relieve chronic pain or anxiety, nausea among cancer patients, or symptoms of epilepsy.
While cannabis is usually smoked, for medical purposes it can be consumed in pills or concentrated oils.
A growing number of governments are allowing its prescription, including countries across South America, Europe, and most US states.
‘Let us grow it’
The details of potential legalization in Lebanon remain hazy, but growers are already setting a few conditions.
“If cannabis production must become legal, it should at least be limited to areas it’s currently growing in,” says Jamal Shreif, another local official in Yammouneh.
“If someone buying from us now can grow it himself, then he’ll stop coming to us.”
Residents of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley are also hoping that a legalization bill would come with an “amnesty” for more than 30,000 people wanted on drug-related charges, says the deputy major, Hussein Shreif.
The charges usually end in jail time, but earlier this month a Lebanese army raid on a high-profile trafficker’s home in the Bekaa left him and seven others dead.
It came just days after Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri announced lawmakers were preparing to discuss legalising cannabis for medical use to boost the economy.
Lebanon’s economy has been in a downward spiral for years, with political divisions paralysing the government.
The outbreak of war in neighbouring Syria in 2011 added to those woes, keeping tourists away and triggering an influx of refugees that strained services.
Public debt stands at $80.4 billion, equivalent to 150 percent of GDP, the third highest worldwide after Japan and Greece.
“If you really want to legalise cannabis, then let us grow it and export it,” says the deputy mayor.
“Drug traders could close out the public debt in a year.”
Lebanon is also ranked by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and cannabis croppers fear that will seep into their trade if it is regularized.
“They’ve stolen everything in Lebanon — there’s only cannabis left, and now they want to steal that too,” says Jamal Shreif.