Lebanon Lebanon is famous for producing high-quality hashish, which is exported throughout the world. Since the 1990s, the state has actively attempted to eradicate the industry, with varying degrees of success. This year, distracted border police are focusing on the conflict in Syria, leaving Lebanese growers unhindered.
Lebanon is famous for producing high-quality hashish, which is exported throughout the world. Since the 1990s, the state has actively attempted to eradicate the industry, with varying degrees of success. This year, distracted border police are focusing on the conflict in Syria, leaving Lebanese growers unhindered.
Law & international policy
Cannabis cultivation and possession is illegal under Lebanese law, and since 1991—shortly after the civil war of 1975-1990 ended—the government has been actively attempting to crack down on operations in the Bekaa Valley, the heartland of traditional cultivation and hashish-making.
The crackdown began in earnest in response to pressure from the international community, but has been sporadic in the years since it began. Between 2005 and 2007 there were no eradications, as Lebanon’s anti-drug division—the Drug Enforcement Bureau (DEB) of the Internal Security Forces—had its resources and capabilities stretched beyond capacity due to ongoing political instability in the region.
Eradication programs lead to unrest
In 2009, the Lebanese authorities claimed to have eradicated cannabis and opium production entirely after a particularly intensive series of raids. However, it appears that cannabis in the Bekaa Valley is an even more tenacious weed than the authorities bargained for, as production efforts reintensified as soon as the military presence had left the valley. Now, hashish production has jumped sharply up, although it is currently at just half of its pre-eradication era peak.
The desperation felt by incensed farmers faced with the destruction of their entire crop by indifferent officials has led to increasing violence in the region. Following armed clashes in 2012—which only ceased on the government’s (later unfulfilled) promise to award compensation to affected farmers—authorities have stated that eradications will be postponed indefinitely.
Cannabis arrests & sentences
Arrests for cannabis possession are relatively infrequent in Lebanon, although they do occur, and often for minor quantities. In July 2013, a 26-year-old Baalbek woman was arrested and charged with possession of six grams of cannabis in Dahr al-Baydar. In April 2013, two Lebanese men and one Jordanian were arrested while attempting to traffic 60 kg of hashish to Israel.
In the Bekaa Valley, there are over 40,000 warrants for arrest outstanding against thousands of farmers and traffickers. In many cases, wanted individuals have multiple warrants outstanding, often for crimes such as attacking the armed forces as well as for cultivation or trafficking itself. There have been calls for an amnesty on these outstanding warrants, as part of a move to increase cooperation between farmers and the authorities.
History of cannabis in Lebanon
Cultivation of cannabis and traditional hashish-making has occurred for centuries in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. In Ottoman times, the pashas that ruled over the valley encouraged the industry. Hashish was ubiquitous, and was even used as a form of currency.
As the Ottoman Empire was partitioned following World War I, France was assigned the League of Nations mandate over Syria and Lebanon. In 1926, a new national constitution was drawn up and the production of hashish was outlawed. An illicit industry soon developed, and by the 1950s, business was booming.
The civil war (1975-1990) allowed the now-illicit Lebanese hashish trade to flourish, as farmers worked with various militias to produce highly-efficient, large-scale operations that enabled the production, transportation and sale of vast quantities. Inevitably, the proceeds of trade were used in part to fund the operations of these militias.
Syrian Occupation of Lebanon (1976-2005)
During the years of Syrian occupation of Lebanon, it is alleged that the invading forces levied taxes from farmers and smugglers in the Bekaa Valley, and that members of the ruling Syrian Al-Assad family directly profited from the system. Syrian military intelligence was also instrumental in managing the occasionally-violent territorial conflicts between the various militias and clans operating in the valley.
Syria occupied the Bekaa Valley between 1976 and 2005, and at the peak of their operations, over half of the available agricultural land (traditionally cultivated with a diversity of crops including wheat, grapes and cannabis) was devoted to the exclusive cultivation of cannabis and opium poppy.
Syrian involvement in eradication programs
When the civil war ended in 1990, Syrian troops still occupied the Bekaa Valley; following negotiations between the Lebanese government, Syria and the wider international community, the attempt to completely annihilate the cannabis industry in the Bekaa Valley began, orchestrated by the same interests that had previously profited from the trade.
Between 1991 and 1994, around 30,000 hectares of cannabis was destroyed, leaving 250,000 people and 23,000 family farms bereft of a primary source of income. It is alleged that (while thousands of small-scale farmers were left impoverished) the largest smuggling organisations were compensated with seats in the government.
Hezbollah, Syria and drug capital
After Syrian troops withdrew from the Bekaa, the well-armed and efficiently-organised Shi’ite Islamist faction Hezbollah took control of the region, along with the hashish industry. There are allegations that Hezbollah, which has been rapidly growing in power since its establishment in 1985, continues to protect Syrian interests in the Bekaa in return for funding and support.
Hezbollah has such power within Lebanon that it has been termed a ‘state within a state’, and is currently fighting alongside the Syrian Shi’ite regime in a bid to quash the three-year uprising that is now spilling over into Lebanon—as well as to protect its cannabis fields in northern Syria. Syrian rebel troops are also allegedly brought to the Bekaa Valley to be given military training by Hezbollah operatives.
Bekaa is itself a primarily Shi’ite area, and many of the Hezbollah troops fighting in Syria are natives of the valley. Hezbollah is primarily funded by the Syrian regime, and as the latter’s power and wealth has been eroded by the civil war, the importance of drug capital has increased accordingly. The current annual income of the Hezbollah drug distribution network is estimated at €4.4 billion.
Hezbollah’s involvement in hashish production
In 2001, Hezbollah warned the Lebanese authorities to forgo planned eradication programs in the valley—ostensibly in a bid to protect farmers’ livelihoods—and the cannabis trade began to slowly pick up speed once more.
Hezbollah is thought to also maintain smaller cannabis cultivation sites in Syria’s Alawite territories; it is reported to guard its fields zealously, and neither Syrian nor Lebanese troops are allowed access to the sites. However, Hezbollah denies that it is involved in the cannabis trade and maintains the official stance that it disapproves of drug production.
Control of the volatile region is an ongoing challenge. Violent clashes between rival gangs and with the armed forces have increased since 2005; Hezbollah has generally left it to the army to deal with the unrest, and has been slow to enact decisive policies regarding the future of the region.
The present-day cannabis trade
Lebanon is still a major supplier of hashish to Europe, Africa and the Gulf States, although its annual production is generally far lower than that of the 1980s. A vast quantity of contraband traverses the porous and poorly-guarded border with Syria every year, and significant—though lesser—quantities are also smuggled over the Lebanon-Israel border.
The towns of the Bekaa Valley are underdeveloped and tribal law remains a powerful force, protected by the various armed families of the region. The area is driven by the illicit drug economy, and when cannabis cultivation cannot occur, poverty takes hold rapidly. Baalbek and Yammouneh are particularly known as hubs of hashish trading; at peak season, their marketplaces thrive with obvious signs of illicit commerce.
Cannabis production is far short of its peak in the 1980s, when up to 60,000 hectares were cultivated each year. However, it appears that the area under cultivation is rapidly expanding once more; the road that runs from the city of Baalbek to Yammouneh is once again lined on both sides with fields of cannabis.
Cultivation of cannabis in the Bekaa
In 2002, it is estimated that just 2,500 hectares of cannabis was cultivated in the extreme north of the valley. It appears that cultivation remained limited for several years—in 2009, when authorities claimed to have eradicated the crop entirely, just 1,300 hectares were destroyed. It is not known what the total extent of cultivation in the Bekaa currently is, but it is estimated to be at least 5,000 hectares, and rising.
The 2013 crop was not subject to eradication efforts, and the resulting abundant harvest has led to a sharp drop in the wholesale price for hashish. The price for one kilogram has dropped from around €750 in 2012 to less than €400 at present.
Cannabis thrives in the rugged, arid Bekaa Valley with no need for irrigation or fertilisers, unlike many other plants, and is far more profitable. A hectare of cannabis may produce anything from 40-100 kg of hashish, worth €16,000-€40,000.
Eradications have caused widespread poverty
While the heavy-handed policies of the Lebanese authorities have not stamped out the trade, they have altered it irreparably. Traditionally, huge numbers of farmers relied on the annual cannabis crop to boost the meagre incomes gleaned from growing other forms of produce.
Many of these small-scale farmers have been cowed into quitting the trade, leaving them subject to poverty as the government and international community have repeatedly failed to provide alternative means of income. While many farmers have recently resumed operations, the effects of twenty years of poverty in the region are still being felt—and the future of their livelihood is far from secure.
The tuffar movement
Over the decades, rural farmers have gradually organised themselves into informal collectives in an attempt to unify themselves against the intrusive state. For example, the tuffar movement is a group of individuals who reject both Hezbollah and state control, and are heavily involved in hashish production in the wild northern regions of Baalbek-Hermel province.
Members of the group have stated their readiness for all-out war with the Lebanese authorities if eradications are attempted prior to the next harvest. Tuffar members have been linked to several violent clashes between farmers and authorities, and many of their number have outstanding arrest warrants over their heads. Lebanese authorities attempting to conduct eradications in the Bekaa have found themselves hindered not only by the actions of the hostile and heavily-armed farmers, but also by the widespread unwillingness of local service providers to assist in the operations.
In 2012, it was reported that eradication efforts had been postponed due to the refusal of local bulldozer operatives to rent their equipment out for use in destroying cannabis fields. Several tractors have been attacked by armed farmers, and operatives have been warned by tribal elders not to participate in the programs. In August 2012, after a sit-in staged by hundreds of armed farmers in Yammouneh, authorities decided to postpone eradications entirely.
Hash-making in Lebanon
Once the crop is harvested in late September (the plants are generally left in the field until almost dry), the plants are typically laid out on a rooftop to fully dry in the sun, and then stored in cool, dry rooms for two-three weeks to cure. Once the plant material is dried and cured, the process of separating the crystalline resin from the flowers, stems and leaves can begin.
The plants are first stripped to remove the stems and outer leaves, and the female flowers are shaken and rubbed over a succession of fine silk-screens with varying mesh sizes. The first shake uses the smallest mesh, and produces a fine, dusty powder with a reddish-golden hue. Two or three more shakes are performed, with results of decreasing quality.
Storing and pressing the hashish
The sifted powder is stored in plastic bags until the winter, at which point it is transferred into cotton or linen bags to be pressed. Heavy-duty industrial presses are used to compress the powder into blocks of soft, malleable hashish, which clearly display the fibrous patterns caused by the bags.
As well as making red-brown hashish from late-harvested plants (the variety known as ‘red Leb’), farmers will also occasionally harvest some plants early in the season, when the trichomes have not fully matured. This results in a lighter, yellowish form of hashish known as ‘Lebanese blonde’, which is typically lighter and more ‘cerebral’ in effect.
Cultural use of cannabis
In the Bekaa Valley, traditional use of cannabis (known there as Al-Mabroukeh, the blessed plant) was integral to society for centuries, although its ubiquity has diminished over the last twenty years. During the peak years, the majority of local families were involved in the trade; children were familiarised with all stages of the hashish-making process at an early age, farmers bartered with it, used it in dowries, and offered it freely to visitors and guests.
Outside of the Bekaa, use of hashish and cannabis is looked down on to some extent by Lebanese society, which apparently also has a tendency to lump hashish in with other, more dangerous drugs. Cannabis farmers are often demonised by the media, and farming collectives branded ‘mafias’. The term hashishine is often used by the Lebanese to denote users of any drug, not just hashish itself.
However, a subculture of use does exist throughout much of Lebanon—hashish (and occasionally herbal cannabis) is widely available, cheap and easy to source. Furthermore, there are signs that the prevalent attitude is shifting as the 1960s ‘baby boomer’ generation, which is generally more liberal than the previous, has become the dominant societal presence.
What next for cannabis in Lebanon?
Lebanon remains one of the top five global producers of hashish, accounting for around 5-6% of total world supply since 2002. Global demand for cannabis and hashish is ever-increasing, and the incentive for impoverished Lebanese farmers to return to their traditional livelihood is great.
Now that the opportunity has presented itself once more, the residents of the Bekaa Valley have responded with alacrity, and they are determined to let nothing stand in their way. The army is exhausted by ongoing security conflicts, and the farmers are desperate—and ready to defend their crops with their lives if necessary. To avoid all-out carnage, authorities have wisely opted to refrain from acting, for the time being at least.
It is important to document the history and current events of the ongoing drug war that continues to affect the lives of so many people throughout the world. For this reason, Sensi Seeds and the Hash Marijuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam aim to provide the most accurate, up-to-date and unbiased information on the present situation, country by country. We welcome your comments, feedback and corrections.