Bekaa Valley, Lebanon( CNN) The farmer plucks a cannabis flower from a long husk. He presses it against his nose, inhales deep and begins to extol the therapeutic — if not inevitably scientific — properties of his crop.
“Smell this. It smells like heaven, ” says Abu Salim, who doesn’t want his real name used for security reasons. “This is the herb of happiness. My friend says that when he smokes a joint, his wife becomes a princess, the world glistens, and life is beautiful! “
This is part of the heartland of Lebanese farming, once considered the breadbasket of the Middle East. It is also home to some of the region’s most conservative and controversial political groups.
An expanse of cannabis — nearly the size of three football fields — stretches out in front of Abu Salim. Harvesting season hasn’t started yet, but the country has now been developed its sights on fields like these.
Heeding the recommendation of international consulting group McKinsey, which was part of a broader development scheme, Lebanon’s parliament is preparing to legalize medicinal cannabis and its cultivation. It’s meant to pave the way to a nearly $800 million industry, according to Economy Minister Raed Khoury, and could serve as a quick fix for some of the country’s many economic woes.
And Lebanon’s farmers say the change can’t come too soon. As in many parts of the region, the country’s farmlands have been disproportionately affected by global warming. The Bekaa Valley, nestled between Mount Lebanon and Syria, is stricken with droughts, and many wells are drying up. Growing potatoes, onions and other render native to the region has been harder than ever before, experts and farmers say.
But cannabis is a drought-resistant crop, requiring little water and no pesticides. And it prospers in the high altitudes of the Bekaa plains.
A farmer in a pickup truck rolls up next to Abu Salim. “What’s the latest on the talking here decriminalize the potatoes? ” the farmer calls out. “Potatoes” is code for hashish, the resin made from the cannabis plants in these portions. “God knows! ” says Abu Salim.