Lebanon’s war on ‘hashish’ indistinguishable from war on the poor

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A cannabis farmer in the Bekaa Valley prays as Lebanese army men come to destroy his harvest. Al-Akhbar/Rameh Hamieh

By: Amer Mohsen

Published Thursday, November 27, 2014

The cultivation of cannabis is popular in specific areas that have special characteristics like high altitude and sunlight, similar to the Bekaa region. This differential feature of Lebanon, which can revive the Lebanese countryside, has been overcome by the alternative agricultural policies required from abroad. The health risks associated with the use of cannabis are minimal compared to alcohol and tobacco, and compared with the results of the war on cannabis cultivation which only affects the poor segments of society.

A few years ago, Lebanese organizations, including left-wing movements, launched a media campaign warning against cannabis and the risk of its spread among the youth. The intention behind the campaign was noble, but it had several flaws: The first is related to the medical claims that accompanied the campaign – which are similar to the propaganda that was disseminated in America during the forties to scare people away from marijuana – saying that marijuana drives people crazy, makes them jump out of windows, and causes delinquency and crime. The main problem was in the “central-Beiruti” mentality, which led ​left-wing movements to claim their devotion to the grievances of the poor and the marginalized, and thus sought to combat and criminalize hashish rather than demand its legalization and lifting the ban on its cultivation.

The issue is very clear. There is a disregard – even contempt – by urban activists for the fates of hundreds of thousands of peasants in their country. They support policies and laws that have impoverished large parts of the Lebanese countryside, either because of their focus on “more important” issues (such as the rejection of the [parliamentary] extension and the “revolt against the sectarian system”), or because of a bourgeois view aimed at preserving morality and normalcy. There is no harm in adopting or defending such a view, but not when it is at the expense of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of society.

To date, there are no adequate studies on the social and economic deterioration that affected the villages of Bekaa and Hermel after the prohibition of cannabis cultivation in the nineties, and others on the prosperity witnessed in the region and the local development that resulted from it, while the rest of the country – paradoxically – was experiencing the worst stages of the civil war, so the government left the farmers alone.

From the history of cannabis

In his book about the history of cannabis, Martin Booth (who also published a well-known book about opium) says that the cannabis is one of the oldest plantations that spread in human societies. He refers to one of the three major species of cannabis today, the “cannabis sativa,” whose name in Latin means “cultivated hemp” because it reached us in its hybrid version, which means that Neanderthals cultivated and hybridized it for thousands of years until the original “wild” seed has been lost and we now have the agriculturally-improved species.

The cultivation of cannabis was widespread not only because of its narcotic effect. Archeological excavations have shown that the consumption of cannabis was also part of religious rituals, and that the plant was an economic asset and resource used in the manufacturing of cloth, linen, ropes, and oils. A conspiracy theory popular among supporters of marijuana in the United States claims that the ban on cannabis cultivation is linked to influential circles in the timber industry, who sought to exclude cannabis as a competitive resource in the paper-manufacturing industry.

We also find many references to hashish and cannabis in Arab and Islamic history, which show its spread and recreational use in our countries through the eras, such as in the writings of chronicler Abdel Rahman al-Jabarti (who talked about his meeting with a mosque orator in Cairo, who claimed to be “under the effect of hashish” to justify his lack of focus during the sermon), as well as in the fatwas of Ibn Taymiyyah, where “Sheikh al-Islam” discussed the topic of hashish and ended up outlawing most of its uses. Based on his jurisprudential arguments, it appears that the people at the time used to consume cannabis either through melting it in tea, eating it directly, or cooking it with food (since the United States had not been discovered yet, and tobacco had not yet reached the ancient world). However, the prolonged explanation provided by Ibn Taymiyyah on the topic and his detailed justification of the prohibition show that the scholars of his day did not have a clear or decisive stance on the matter.

Lebanon and the differential feature

To be able to understand the secret behind the special relationship between Lebanon and hashish, and the differential feature that characterizes the Bekaa Valley and its surrounding hills in this regard, we have to know a few basics about the cultivation of this plant. According to Martin Booth, the “quality” of the hashish – i.e., the concentration of the principal psychoactive constituent Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the female plants – is directly linked to two factors: altitude and sunlight. Cannabis needs large amounts of solar radiation during the maturity period so the plant can grow rapidly, and the growth of its genital parts, which contain the active substance, needs infrared (IR) radiation, whose concentration in the sun increases with altitude.

In other words, high-quality cannabis needs high-altitude mountainous areas, which are, at the same time, hot and exposed to the burning sun during the summer, which is rare in the world. For this reason, the cultivation of cannabis is prominent in specific areas that combine the characteristics of altitude and sunlight, like the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, the hills of Afghanistan ... and the Lebanese Bekaa.

This is a “geographic gift” that cannot be cloned or bought with money. It is limited to a few regions in the world – Booth says that the best and most expensive types of hashish are grown in India, on the foothills of the Himalayas and over-3,000-meter heights, and due to their rarity are preserved in special leather bags. These qualities have made ​​Lebanon's Bekaa and Hermel a center for cannabis cultivation since ancient times.

The charming town of Yamuna, which lies in a small internal valley in the highlands of Lebanon’s western mountain range, acquired its “market” reputation in the production of cannabis not because of its special soil, or the magic touch of al-Sharif. It is simply due to its high altitude in the barren areas and abundant water sources, which allows the cultivation of cannabis in perfect conditions. If the Hermel heights – which are rainfed areas today – were covered by irrigation projects – as it was supposed to be decades ago – the whole area would have been like Yamuna.

Lebanon’s gold

In the past two decades, new varieties of marijuana were bred in the West, and plantation techniques were developed in closed spaces under controlled lighting and temperature conditions to produce crops in which the concentration of the psychoactive constituent exceeds any product grown in nature.

However, this pattern of agriculture (which supplies the medical and commercial marijuana market in the West) requires the consumption of large amounts of energy for each plant separately. It is also less competitive – in the commercial sense – compared with lands that are, by nature, ideal for the cultivation of cannabis, and have been inherited by farmers over long years. Millions of meters of these lands can be cultivated at a low cost, and by relying solely on the generosity of the sun and the sky.

From here, we conclude that any kind of agriculture is – naturally – ideal for the marginal areas of Lebanon, and some have real differential features on a global level. A quick look at the labor force working in Lebanon, the price of land, and state policies is enough to understand that Lebanon’s competitive commodity – which will eliminate rural poverty and create development in rural areas – is most likely not potatoes or wheat. In addition, a main characteristic of agricultural property in eastern Lebanon is that [owned lands] are relatively small and fragmented. Also, most farmers own their land, which prevents the emergence of feudal and semi-feudal cartels (as in Afghanistan and South America), or huge agricultural companies that would exploit the peasants as laborers and monopolize profits for the benefit of major landowners. A significant part of proceeds from the cultivation of “contraband” plants in the Bekaa traditionally went to farmers.

This question should be raised, while the country that pressured and forced Lebanon to ban the cultivation of cannabis – the United States – has legalized the use of hashish in several states. The governments of the West no longer have a moral or legal excuse to impose such policies on our country. The general direction in the West is heading toward the legalization of cannabis derivatives, or at least not criminalizing it and prosecuting its users. But Lebanon is required to arrest its farmers who are seeking to avoid hunger and migration.

War on the poor

One of the reasons that triggered the wave of marijuana legalization in the West, even for recreational use, is the absence of a convincing medical argument – i.e. a threat to “public safety” – to justify the prohibition of hashish while allowing the sale of other “drugs” like alcohol and tobacco, which are far more dangerous and harmful than marijuana. As Professor As`ad AbuKhalil once wrote, if whiskey was produced by the countries of the South, while hashish was monopolized by the West, wine would be forbidden and frowned upon in Lebanon while ads by hashish companies would have filled the streets.

Science has become clear in this regard. Serious proven tests have shown that the consumption of cannabis may have side effects and can be dangerous for people who suffer from certain neurological problems. Also, heavy consumption can cause addiction and dependency in one out of 10 cases. However, these risks are insignificant compared with those of alcohol and tobacco, or even stress. Tobacco combustion may be the most dangerous thing in a “marijuana cigarette.” During the writing of this article, I consulted with a professor and researcher of Lebanese origin at Harvard Medical School, who graciously provided me with scientific studies and summaries. He expressed his opposition to the criminalization of cannabis cultivation, adding that its advantages in medical use are “very real,” and that the greatest harm results from the war on cultivation, as evidenced by the American experience, since it mainly affects – in Lebanon, as in America – the poorer classes, which do not have a voice in society.

This is one of the issues that will not be of concern to civil society organizations, and will not receive financing from European governments and institutions. However – unlike a lot of campaigns created by these organizations to justify their existence – it is achievable and can change – in the actual direct sense – many people's lives.

It is possible to imagine a different future for large areas in Lebanon that are marginalized and disadvantaged today, in which farmers will be able to live in dignity and prosperity in their areas, and land and production will have real value.
The people living on the coast may migrate to internal areas, this time, in search of work and opportunities.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Your article is beautiful and truth is just that, beautiful. New Zealand suffers from prohibition of cannabis where most social damage is connected with alcohol consumption.
Law reform a few years ago dropped the legal purchase age to 18 years and now the city street are flooded with drunken youth each weekend.
Even the NZ police make comment on how serious the drunkenness is but do little about it.
Another element in the NZ police make public comment whenever they can to discredit cannabis and so the public remain confused regardless of the huge changes in the USA where all this ant-pot madness started.
The NZ area call McKenzie country is a high altitude and sunny place in summer and snowy in the winter. That might one be the Bekaa valley hashish center of NZ. I pray that it be so. Good luck everyone.

The article mentions that 10% will be addicted and can be dangerous for people who suffer from certain neurological problems. The only 3 people I met on cannabis are addicted & showed mental instability. Their families can attest to that. But the prevalence of Koffee shops in The Nethetlands does not seem to create many problems. You see people going in and out of these dreadful places ( some a bit bleary eyed) without problems unlike the viscious drunks that are falling on the streets in the UK.

this article is a big deception for me. i read al akhbar like a resistance voice. cannabis isnt like tobacco. is a powerfull embriagant sustance that is taxative forbiden by quran. no justification by economy or health topics. is a big door to destroy a comunity like alcohol and more serius and dificult that it. the drugs are a cancer with high power of corruption because move mountains of dollars and include a part of people, poor people, in production and distribution, and consume it all people, specially the youth. alhamdulillah i leave it. in time, cannabis create a criminal and indolent mentality in youth. is a big big price for a little minutes of social-middle class entertainment. the poors kill and death for it. erradication and education in islam values is solution. no state war but popular war vs drugs is the right path. help us!

Do you have any scientific evidence to support any of your claims (other than the quran says its bad for you)?

you do realize not everyone want s to live under shari3a

While marijuana can be grown anywhere, more or less, Lebanon has some of the best cannabis medicine on the planet. Let it grow ~*

Great article, I greatly appreciate this piece as its rare to see an important topic such as this discussed in such a manner in the media. There is far too much ignorance on this issue and this article is a push against such ignorance.

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