For decades, Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley has been associated with lawlessness and the cultivation of drug crops – specifically hashish. The hashish traffickers have grown rich from the proceeds of their illegal trade – their mansions dot the landscape of the Bekaa. But the farmers that grow the crop generally remain poor and are trapped operating outside the law to earn a meager living. Now, two bills are being studied by parliament to legalize hashish cultivation for medicinal purposes. One of them, submitted by Speaker Nabih Berri, looks to the public sector to manage hashish production. The other, proposed by Antoine Habchy, a Lebanese Forces MP from Deir el Ahmar in the Bekaa, recommends the private sector takes the lead. The Brief sat down with Habchy to hear his views on how legalizing hashish cultivation in the Bekaa could help reduce the endemic crime in the Valley and also provide decent incomes to residents of the historically impoverished district.
The Brief: Outline to us, if you can, the current problems surrounding hashish cultivation in the Bekaa valley that make its legalization so necessary.
Antoine Habchy: There are three concerned parties – the farmer, the trafficker and the addicted people. The farmer does not gain much from his work. For one thousand square meters [of planted hashish], he earns about $600 a year, which is nothing. At the same time, what he is doing is illegal so he is constantly under threat of arrest from the state. Since it’s illegal he’s obliged to sell [his crop] to the trafficker. It is the trafficker who is gaining millions and millions of dollars because of two things. Either he is distributing among youth at secondary schools or universities or he is able to export. In both cases, exporting or distribution, he needs to be covered because when we say exportation, we are talking about crossing territorial boundaries.
TB: When you say ‘covered’, you mean politically covered?
AH: Absolutely. How can he export hashish overseas across boundaries or via airports or the port? How can he do that? He needs a partner in the political system who can cover him… It’s not like we don’t know who these people are. We know these Lords of Hashish. They have 50, 60 bodyguards, they have their villas and they have their weapons. What they are doing is illegal but we see them easily moving around in the Bekaa. It makes me conclude that they are part of a political network.
To push the analysis, in the Bekaa you cannot be a trafficker out of choice. The network will choose who can traffic and this is up to the political affiliation [of the potential trafficker]. Any trafficker becomes a social key because when you become a millionaire you become a reference point in your community or your locality. You can translate [that wealth and influence] to political strength during the election. No political cover would allow a trafficker to amass such wealth if he is not on the same political line as that of the cover.
TB: And what about the users of hashish?
AH: It’s becoming a dangerous issue in our society. Some people do not consider [hashish] a hard drug. But it is a gate that leads to all kinds of drugs. So, when I proposed the law I had three objectives: one, is to help the farmer get an income and be free of the Lords of Hashish. When he is free of the lord of hashish, he has a free conscience and that will turn to a political freedom also. The social and economic situation in the Bekaa is mainly determining what is happening politically.
TB: Is this because – and people say this all the time in the Bekaa – that people are dependent on the goodwill of Amal and Hezbollah because it’s an impoverished area?
“We are not offering farmers a horizon of life, we are offering them a horizon of death because there is an absence of choice”
AH: I would say it differently. The state does not exist there. When the state does not exist, [certain entities] offer to be the economic source [of welfare to local residents]. So, what are we offering people? We are not offering farmers a horizon of life, we are offering them a horizon of death because there is an absence of choice.
TB: You mentioned three objectives behind your law proposal.
AH: Second, I would like this law to reduce the amount of hashish on the [Lebanese] market and the external one. This will help addicted people. There should be other laws to help people overcome their addiction.
Third, legalizing hashish for medicinal purposes will make it easier to encounter the Lords of Hashish. I’ll explain how. Today, it’s illegal. There are [checkpoints] everywhere in the Bekaa. But you will see around them thousands of square meters planted with hashish and nobody is moving [to stop it]. The Lords of Hashish are everywhere and nobody is moving… If we do legalize for medicinal purposes, it will be easier for the state to control the percentage of people that continue to not follow the law in contrast to what is happening today. When everyone is outside the law, there’s nothing that can be done. But if 80 percent of farmers work with the new legislation [and grow hashish legally] you will be able to pursue more easily the remaining 20 percent that keep themselves beyond the law.
TB: So how would your proposed law work if it were adopted?
AH: In my proposed law, the ministerial authority should be the ministry of health.
TB: Not the ministry of agriculture?
AH: No, not agriculture and not the public sector. The ministry of health would [coordinate with] private sector firms, and these firms should have an experience of seven to 20 years in medicinal production. Once a company’s request to operate in Lebanon is accepted by the ministry of health, the company will deal directly with the farmer.
TB: If you have a condition that only companies with seven or more years can operate here, then that will exclude the possibility of any Lebanese companies from participating.
AH: Yes, unless they are part of an international firm that has that experience. There are a lot of restrictions for this. The farmer does not plant seeds – it’s up to the firm to give him the plant. Each plant would have a serial number. How do you control all that? Form a committee including representatives of the ministries of health, agriculture, interior and the representatives of a cooperative of hashish that should be established to represent the farmer’s interests. This committee would have the task of controlling the process from the moment permits are delivered until to the end of the cultivation process.
TB: What challenges do you expect to face?
“Corruption in the public sector is huge and you would not know how the permits [for growing hashish] are given”
AH: You might find a lot of people will challenge this law because it is unethical to legalize hashish. We are saying that it is not a case of legalizing hashish, it is legalizing alternative cultivation for medicinal purposes. But those who have taken advantage of the previous [protection] networks, will find a way to be against the new law.
There is another handicap – if we decide not to privatize the system but make it part of the public sector instead. Corruption in the public sector is huge and you would not know how the permits [for growing hashish] are given. The state has no experience in [hashish grown for] medicinal production, thus there would be no control. This is why it is very important to privatize the sector. By privatizing you will give the farmer an advantage because there will be no monopoly – not a state monopoly and not a private monopoly.
TB: How would you determine how much the farmers will receive financially?
AH: I will leave it to the market itself. When the farmer has a possibility of receiving permits from different private firms, the issue of supply and demand will play its role. [From conversations I have had], what is definitely clear is that the turnover of the farmer would be almost six times [what they currently receive], which is good. The importance of private sector involvement is that it will bring new technology to farmers to improve their ways of planting and growing hashish.
TB: How will the Lebanese state benefit from a privatized hashish cultivation program?
AH: There are different ways. You can tax it, sell licenses. What is the government gaining now? Nothing. It’s an economic cycle.
TB: If there is a law that legalizes hashish, the price of illegal hashish will increase because there is less available on the black market. How would one prevent a farmer growing two dunams, for example, of legal hashish to sell to a medicinal company and around the corner he is growing another dunam of hashish that he could sell at a much higher rate on the black market?
AH: Look at what is happening now. It’s illegal but everybody is planting. I do believe that it will be easier for the state to control it [after legalization] because those that continue to grow it illegally will be in the minority. What’s happening now is that everybody is planting and it’s illegal and the state is doing nothing.
TB: Have many foreign companies shown interest in Lebanon’s hashish market?
AH: Many companies have contacted us – American, Canadian. There are different firms interested. There is an economic feasibility. A study showed that one gram of hashish oil produced in Canada costs $1, in Israel it’s 50 cents and in Lebanon it would cost 20 cents. Another characteristic is the quality of the product related to the sun, climate and soil. It seems the Bekaa is a good milieu for these conditions.
TB: There are two different ways right now of cultivating hashish. One is to water the plants so that they increase in size but the potency of the plant is less. The other is to deny the plants water and they end up smaller but more concentrated.
AH: It’s up to the firms to choose how to grow the plants. When growing for medicinal reasons there are certain conditions that must be followed or it will lead nowhere. For example, right now, plants are irrigated the traditional way with lots of water. But if you are growing the plant for medicinal use, you should not give the plant more water than it needs to survive. This can be done with drip technology which provides the right amount of water for a healthy crop but does not have a major impact on the levels of water in the Bekaa.
“Even if we have different political visions, on the development level we can do something to improve the economic and social situation in the Bekaa”
TB: What level of support are you receiving from your colleagues in parliament?
AH: I am talking to different groups to explain my point of view and I find that a large number of them are convinced about privatization as a platform for a productive sector that also controls illegal cultivation.
TB: In the Bekaa, people often say that because there is so little opportunity for employment, young men have no choice but to join Hezbollah to earn a living. And that could mean they are sent to Syria to fight and perhaps die.
AH: If you don’t have a horizon for life, you will choose any life. I believe that Hezbollah’s constituency is also in need and it’s in the interest of Hezbollah and Amal or all the political constituencies to overcome the [dire] economic situation and do something for the citizens of the Bekaa. Even if we have different political visions, on the development level we can do something to improve the economic and social situation in the Bekaa. If the intentions are to keep the people poor it will go nowhere.