* Syria conflict diverts troops from drug eradication
* Hardy cannabis crop brings big profit for farmers
* Supporters of legalisation see economic benefit
By Laila Bassam and Dominic Evans
BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon, May 20 (Reuters) - Driving around his Bekaa Valley farmland, Ali Nasri Shamas carries a revolver by his side and an automatic rifle in the back of his car, weapons he says he’s ready to use if the army moves in to try to destroy his lucrative cannabis crop.
But he may not need them this year. With Syria’s civil war raging 30 miles (50 km) away, Lebanese security forces have other priorities than their annual showdown with the Bekaa hashish growers.
“If they want a confrontation that’s no problem for us, it will be harvest season soon,” Shamas says, standing in a field of the green, spiky-leafed plants from which hashish resin is extracted.
In recent years, security forces have sent tractors, bulldozers and armoured vehicles to plough up, flatten or burn the cannabis crops, leading to clashes with farmers armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Dramatic as they were, those shows of force by authorities achieved only partial success in a region where the state holds limited sway and even the militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah is reluctant to confront formidable local clans.
Since 2012, the campaign has been quietly shelved.
Two years ago farmers blocked roads when security forces started burning cannabis. The government backed down and the interior minister promised to look into compensating farmers for crop eradication and finding them alternative sources of income, pledges the farmers say have not been honoured.
Last year, as violence spilled over the border from Syria’s civil war - with bombs and gunfights in Lebanon’s coastal cities and rockets striking towns in the Bekaa - authorities called a halt to a battle they had waged with farmers since the end of Lebanon’s own 1975-1990 civil war.
During that war, the fertile Bekaa Valley produced up to 1,000 tonnes of cannabis resin annually, before it was briefly stamped out under a United Nations programme between 1991-1993.
“From the 1990s until 2012, cannabis eradication took place on an annual basis,” said Colonel Ghassan Shamseddine, head of Lebanon’s drug enforcement unit.
“But in 2012...it was halted because of the situation on the Lebanese borders and the instability in Syria,” he said in an interview in Beirut.
Shamas has grown a variety of crops in his 135 acres (54 hectares) of fields, including barley, wheat, onions and potatoes. But cannabis provides by far the best returns.
It’s also a hardy crop, well suited to withstand the unusually dry winter which Lebanon suffered this year, without the need for expensive irrigation.
It costs between $100 and $150 to cultivate one dunum (a quarter of an acre, or tenth of a hectare), much less than a field of wheat. At harvest time in late summer, farmers can get up to $3,000 per dunum.
“With hashish no one loses,” says Shamas, who has planted more of it as a portion of his overall crop in recent years.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Lebanon in 2011 as one of the world’s top five sources of cannabis resin. Shamseddine said official figures suggested the total area of cannabis planted has remained constant over the last three years at around 35,000 dunums, though it has fluctuated sharply in the preceding years.
In 2005, a tumultuous year when Syrian forces ended their 29-year military presence in Lebanon, 64,000 dunums were planted. That fell to 11,000 by 2010, the year before Syria’s uprising erupted and Lebanon slipped towards domestic turmoil.
The long and inconclusive campaign against the cannabis crop, combined with recent moves to legalise the drug in two U.S. states, has led some prominent Lebanese to add their voices to the farmers’ calls for cultivation to be legalised.
Veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt - insisting he had never smoked marijuana - said last month he supported growing cannabis for medicinal use, arguing that regulated crop cultivation would improve living conditions in poorer areas of the Bekaa Valley.
Economist Marwan Iskander said fully legalising the cannabis crop would help Bekaa and another impoverished part of Lebanon, the northern Akkar region, as well as contributing $400 million to the state budget and $2 billion to the wider economy at a time when Lebanon is struggling with the fallout of Syria’s war.
“At this stage it would have a big impact,” he said. “Lebanon needs this farming and needs to revive the Bekaa and Akkar regions.”
While conceding the idea was unlikely to gain widespread support, he said he had floated it to senior United Nations and World Bank officials in Beirut. “They didn’t say at the outset that this is going too far,” he said.
In practice, Shamseddine says that as long as the drug control efforts take second place to containing the spread of Syria’s conflict into Lebanon, cannabis cultivation will be seen to be officially tolerated, at least by the farmers.
“Every year that passes without eradication encourages people,” he said.
Shamas said authorities should take a step further and formally recognise cannabis as a legal crop - a move he said would have benefits for all.
“We don’t like cultivating cannabis by force and making problems,” he said. “When the state legalises it and gives licences, as they do for tobacco cultivation, we would abide by that, and the state would receive (revenues) from us.”
Regardless what stance officials take, Shamas said he will continue sowing more and more.
“Every year we’ve planted cannabis and every year we’ve increased the area which we’ve planted. The year they destroyed it we promised them we would plant five times that amount”.
“If they want to legalise it, we’ll thank them. If we knew that the state was looking after us we wouldn’t lift a gun towards a soldier,” he said “But if anyone from the state’s gangs fights us, we will fight back.” (Editing by Peter Graff)