Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 9 Table of Contents
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5 October 2000 

Drug Production and the Environment in Lebanon
by Alexander H. Joffe

A.H. Joffe taught in the Department of Anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University from 1995 to 2000. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona and has written on modern Middle Eastern topics, including truth and reconciliation commissions, intelligence reform, and weapons of mass destruction for Middle East Quarterly and Crime, Law, and Social Change. He thanks Alan A. Block for suggesting the topic of this article.

Cannabis Field
Cannabis in the Beqaa Valley, 1987 [Al-Nahar]

The good news is that, according to U.S. government sources, drug production in Lebanon has vastly decreased from its peak during the late 1980's and early 1990's.2 The bad news is that Lebanon is now a center for trafficking, transshipment, and money laundering.

Almost as bad is the fact that behind virtually every illicit drug is a chemical process that results in a variety of hazardous wastes. These problems have not yet been fully documented in Lebanon. But strong a circumstantial case can be made that extensive drug production in Lebanon, past, present, and future, will have a highly detrimental impact on an already fragile environment.


Drugs have been present in the Middle East since remote antiquity. Opium was cultivated and widely traded during the Bronze Age, if not earlier, while cannabis is likely to have originated in Central Asia and is well documented archaeologically in the Near East by the first millennium BC.2 In contrast, coca does not occur naturally in the Old World. The drugs that were available were widely used and traded as medicinals and for use in rituals, but recreational use may be suspected. There are no data which speak directly to the scale of production of use in antiquity.

Mustafa Tlass
Mustafa Tlass

Modern production and use of drugs in the Middle East has not been addressed by historians, but whatever small-scale production existed in the early 20th century increased dramatically during the 1970's and 1980's in response to rising global demand. By the 1980's, production and export of drugs in Lebanon had become a massive industry. During the 1980's, cultivation of cannabis and opium poppies expanded tremendously throughout Lebanon due to growing international demand and the breakdown of central government controls. A key role was taken by occupying Syrian military and intelligence officials, with at least tacit support from Damascus. A number of high ranking officials, including Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, were directly implicated, giving permission to smugglers to travel unhindered throughout Syria and Lebanon. According to some estimates, the industry generated over $2,000,000,000 a year in profits.3

The profits collected by Syrians served the Assad regime by cementing the allegiance of primarily Alawite officials. These relationships have been threatened by a decade of anti-drug activity and the anti-corruption campaigns recently undertaken by Assad's son Bashar.4 Drug production and export also provided significant funds to Hezbollah and, according to Turkish sources, the PKK.5 The desire to advance a geo-political connection with the United States through 'certification' of its anti-drug activities may have prompted Syrian decision to restrict the drug trade.

In 1989, Lebanon and Syria began a much publicized drive against drug production which significantly reduced the acreage devoted to opium poppy and cannabis production. From an estimated peak of at least 3400 hectares of poppy cultivation in 1991, only 150 hectares remained in 1996.6 From a peak of many thousands of hectares of cannabis, only 240-260 hectares remain in Lebanon.7 In 1996, Lebanon became party to the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, but registered reservations about the convention's provisions regarding bank secrecy. In 1998 over 1000 Lebanese convicted of drug offenses were released from prison under the provisions of an amnesty.8 Recent reports suggest that while Lebanese production has virtually been eliminated, Syrian production of cannabis in areas of the Beqa Valley continues.9 While seizures of processed drugs in Lebanon during the early 1990's routinely totaled in the hundreds of kilograms, more recently amounts in the gram to kilo range have been seized.10 Local drug abuse has apparently increased as well.11

Lebanese nationals continue to be implicated in smuggling to various locations,12 and Jordan in particular has experienced a huge increase in seizures of Lebanese and Syrian drugs. According to Jordanian military sources a total of 36 kilograms of heroin were seized from 1991 to 1995, rising to 1996 68 kilograms in 1996, while a single seizure in early 2000 totaled 107 kilograms.13 Predictably, hashish smuggling has been reduced significantly but production and export of synthetic amphetamines have increased enormously.14 Iran and Central Asia have also experienced increases in production and smuggling, with recent seizures almost monthly in the hundreds of kilogram range.15

There can be no doubt that drug production in Lebanon has fallen well below its peak during the 1980's. Eradication of cannabis and resulting hashish production has largely been accomplished. But there are also hints that, in the absence of long-promised international aid, drug production could resume quickly in Lebanon.16 The apparent increases in heroin and amphetamine production are particularly ominous from an environmental perspective.


Cultivation of opium and coca has been shown to have a negative impact on the environment in Central and Latin America and East Asia, primarily from the use of intensive slash and burn techniques and resulting soil erosion.17 This is unlikely to be a serious problem in the semi-arid environments of the Middle East, since slash and burn techniques are suited only for densely vegetated zones. The destruction of cannabis and opium crops by law enforcement, however, may temporarily increase soil erosion and water runoff. This problem cannot be quantified, since it coincides with the rapid expansion of industrial agriculture in the Middle East, including mechanical leveling of fields, deep ploughing, intensive irrigation, and heavy use of chemical fertilizers. All of these techniques produce increased erosion, runoff, soil exhaustion, and depletion and contamination of the water table.

drug bust
A rare drug bust during the civil war [Al-Nahar]

Illicit manufacturing of heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, however, has a significant and singular impact on the environment. Each drug requires elaborate chemical processes to extract and refine the active ingredients. The primary threat comes from precursor chemicals required to convert raw opium or coca, and to synthesize amphetamines, which are then disposed of, along with by-products, such as contaminated water, filters, residues and equipment.

Heroin production, for example, requires a variety of steps and chemicals. Once the raw opium has been extracted, it is dissolved in boiling water, filtered and then dried to remove impurities. The dried material is then dissolved again in boiling water along with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) to produce morphenate in solution, heated again with ammonium chloride to precipitate morphine and codeine, and then filtered to produce morphine base. The morphine base is then purified by dissolution in dilute hydrochloric or sulfuric acid, heated with the addition of activated charcoal and then filtered to produce morphine hydrochlorate. This must be heated and mixed with acetic anhydride then allowed to cool. Water is added to the solution, along with chloroform, if possible. Activated charcoal is added, the mixture filtered repeatedly, and sodium carbonate (soda ash) added. More filtering is done and the base may be redissolved in hydrochloric acid and reprecipitated and refiltered. This heroin base must then be converted to heroin hydrochloride through the addition of ethyl alcohol, ether and concentrated hydrochloric acid, the resulting crystallized mixture then filtered, dried, packaged, and adulterated.18 Cocaine production similarly requires large quantities of sodium carbonate, kerosene, potassium permanganate, ammonia, acetone, and hydrochloric acid.19

Specifications regarding quantities of chemicals are extremely difficult to find in non-technical sources, and there are indications that at least in the United States information is restricted by the government. According to the International Narcotics Control Bureau, to produce 100 kilograms of cocaine requires between 100 and 400 liters of sulfuric acid, 20 kilograms of potassium permanganate, 1500 to 2000 liters of acetone or toluene, and 30 liters of hydrochloric acid.20 The result is that extremely large quantities of chemicals and residues are produced and then disposed of. If anything, amphetamine production is even more technically challenging and toxic. Depending on the methods used, production may involve lithium, ammonia, hydrogen chloride, acetone, and red phosphorus.

The question then arises, what happened to all the chemicals and residues produced in over twenty years of drug production in Lebanon? Given the scale of past and present manufacturing of heroin and cocaine in Lebanon, immense quantities of hazardous chemicals were introduced into the environment, along with solid wastes. Little direct evidence is available to indicate the scale of the resulting contamination, such as descriptions of clandestine labs, environmental assessments, or health records. News reports have mentioned seizures of some precursor chemicals, in particular acetic anhydride, but no mention has been made of more common industrial chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid.21 Given the better documented experiences of other countries, however, a strong circumstantial case can be made that Lebanon has a very serious problem which is not being addressed.

In the United States, the highly developed environmental protection infrastructure and ethos permits considerable focus on specific contaminants and industries. Illicit methamphetamine production has emerged as a pervasive source of highly intensive, and widely distributed environmental contamination.22 Local authorities have been compelled to clean-up thousands of illegal methamphetamine labs and several have qualified as EPA Superfund sites. Each may cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean-up and restore for use and the recovered hazardous materials disposed of properly.23 Little information is available for Europe and Asia which suggests that the scale of the environmental consequences from illicit drug production has either not been addressed by government, law enforcement and public health officials, or that it is submerged within a vast range of other pollution problems.

Precursor chemicals are subject to increasingly tight production and export controls, both internationally and by individual countries. The 1988, the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances established two tables to track and control precursor chemicals. As a result more detailed information is becoming available but trafficking continues to increase. In June 1995, Lebanon restricted the importation and use of acetic anhydride to prevent its diversion for heroin manufacturing. Given that virtually all precursors have legitimate industrial uses, and that global production and trade of some chemicals measures in the millions of tons, the problem is daunting. One example is the quantities of a highly specialized chemical, potassium permanganate, listed on Table II of the 1988 UN Convention. According to US government sources, in only nine months of 1999, almost 8,800 tons of this chemical were tracked globally by 'Operation Purple' and over two thousand tons were stopped or seized.24 Seizures of another table II 'choke' chemical, acetic anhydride (vital for the production of heroin and cocaine as well as legitimate pharmaceuticals), have also continued to increase despite better monitoring. In contrast, a common chemical such as hydrochloric acid is produced and traded in vast quantities. According to the US Department of Commerce, in December 1999 the United States alone exported 3,514 tons of hydrochloric acid, making significant controls over end-use and diversion virtually impossible.25

The impact of chemical contaminants from illicit drug production will be especially profound in an environment such as Lebanon. Groundwater contamination is already a severe problem in Lebanon. Uncontrolled well drilling in the 1980's reduced the water table in a number of regions and contributed to increased salinization of coastal aquifers. Equally damaging has been the excessive use of chemical fertilizers resulting in nitrite contamination of groundwater and uncontrolled dumping of municipal waste water.26 As Lebanon rebuilds its water infrastructure, including detection monitoring network, contaminants from illicit drug production will come into greater focus. Solid waste is already a problem, and Lebanon does not appear prepared to deal with hazardous or toxic materials.


Lebanon faces a variety of environmental problems, including the Middle East's general shortage of freshwater. The sheer scale of reconstruction which has gone on since the end of the civil war raises a variety of issues, not least of which the question of where all the rubble and construction debris has been dumped. A considerable portion was simply dumped offshore.27 Lebanon has also experienced the illegal importation of toxic wastes from Europe.28 Production of illicit drugs is an additional problem whose impact will be felt into the future. It is not clear that the Lebanese legal system is capable of dealing with the problem, but that question should be studied by specialists. At a minimum, the consequences of illicit drug production should simultaneously be addressed as an environmental crime as well as within the traditional framework of narcotics abuse and trafficking. The potential disruption of Lebanese agriculture, economy, and health, and the documented problems with smuggling and use, make drug production a major regional environmental security issue. Lebanese authorities and international organizations would be well advised to begin actively looking for the types of contamination created by drug production before the consequences become dire. The involvement of state-level organs, transnational elites, and international organized crime in drug production in Lebanon further elevate the environmental consequences to a pressing security question.


  1 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. Department of State, March 2000.
  2 A.B. Knapp, (1991). "Spice, drugs, grain and grog: organic goods in Bronze Age East Mediterranean trade," In Bronze Age Trade in the Mediterranean, N. H. Gale, ed. Jonsered, Paul Aströms Förlag: 21-68. R.S. Merrillees, (1989). "Highs and Lows in the Holy Land: Opium in Biblical Times," Eretz-Israel 20: 148-154. D. Zohary and M. Hopf (1993). Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley, Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp. 126-127.
  3 Peter Conradi, "Troops reap rich harvest from Lebanese drugs trade," The Sunday Times (London), 18 June 2000.
  4 Haggay Etkes, "Dubious Inheritance," Israel Business Arena, 11 June 2000. Already in the mid-1990's the Syrian military connection had been publicized to a degree that certain officials were sacrificed. "Special Forces Commander Said Relieved of Duties -- News Agency Cited on Haydar Dismissal," FBIS-NES-94-165, 18 August 1994; Al-Nahar (Beirut), 18 August 1994. For the involvement of Syrian elites in Lebanon see generally Rachel Bronson, "Syria: Hanging Together or Hanging Separately," The Washington Quarterly (2000) 23.4, pp. 91-105.
  5 Paul Stenhouse, "The Syrian Drug and Terrorist Connection," Australia & World Affairs, Autumn 1995, Issue 24, pp. 33-44. "PKK Said To Produce 60 Tonnes Heroin Annually," FBIS-TDD-98-326, 22 Nov 1998; Ankara Anatolia, 21 November 1998.
  6 http://www.state.gov/www/global/narcotics_law/1997_narc_report/afrme97.html.
  7 http://www.state.gov/www/global/narcotics_law/1999_narc_report/2.
  8 "1,000 Drug Convicts Released by Lebanese Pardon Law," FBIS-TDD-98-003, 3 January 1998; Radio Lebanon 3 January 1998. "Lebanese Deputy Jailed in Drug-Trafficking Case Freed," FBIS-NES-98-002, 2 January 1998; Radio Lebanon, 2 January 1998.
  9 Al J. Venter, "As one door closes...," , Middle East, Issue 299, March 2000, pp. 9-11. Note also that a Lebanese army patrol looking for drugs recently came under fire in the Baalbek area. "Lebanese anti-drug unit under fire in Baalbek," Agence France Presse, 28 June 2000.
  10 "Lebanese Army Seizes Drugs Off Northern Coast," FBIS-TDD-98-121, 1 May 1998; Radio Lebanon (Beirut), 1 May 1998. Lebanon also has few restrictions on licit drugs, which has led to an apparent increase in self-medication. S. Major, S. Badr, et al. (1998), "Drug-related Hospitalization at a Tertiary Teaching Center in Lebanon: Incidence, Associations, and Relation to Self-Medicating Behavior," Clinical Pharmacological Therapy 64 (4), pp. 450-461.
  11 "Report on Drugs in Lebanon," FBIS-NES-1999-0801, 29 July 1999; Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 29 July 1999.
  12 "Police Break Ring Smuggling Drugs From Syria," FBIS-EEU-1999-1220, 20 December 1999; Sofia BTA, 20 December 1999.
  13 "Statistics Show Increase in Drug Trafficking in 1996," FBIS-TDD-97-082, 23 March 1997; Jordan Times (Amman), 23 March 1997.
  14 "Jordan Agents Seize Huge Illicit Drug Cache, Nab 6 Suspects," FBIS-NES-2000-0806, 6 August 2000; Jordan Times (Amman), 6 August 2000. This seizure was of 3,341,400 tablets of captagon (fenetylline hydrochloride).
  15 "Over 581 Kgs of Drugs Seized in Semnan Province," FBIS-NES-1999-1222, 22 December 1999; IRNA (Teheran), 22 December 1999. "Over 154 Kg Narcotics Seized in Fars Province," FBIS-NES-2000-0102, 2 January 2000; IRNA 2 January 2000. "140 Kg of Narcotics Seized in Bandar Abbas," FBIS-NES-2000-0203, 3 February 2000; IRNA, 3 February 2000. "1,523 kg of Drugs Seized in Fars Province," FBIS-NES-2000-0215, 15 February 2000; IRNA, 15 February 2000. "555 kg Drugs Seized in Hormuzgan Province in Three Months," FBIS-NES-2000-0629, 29 June 2000; IRNA, 29 June 2000.
  16 "Plan to replace hashish with cotton, saffron in eastern Lebanon," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 19 August 2000. "Failure of promised aid sends Lebanese farmers back to their drug crops: The presence of Lebanese soldiers in the Beka'a Valley has helped to get rid of the large-scale production of drugs," The Guardian, 6 July 1998.
  17 http://www.american.edu/projects/mandala/TED/ice/cocaine.htm.
  18 "Opium and Heroin Cultivation in Southwest Asia," US Drug Enforcement Agency, 1983. See also the 1999 International Narcotics Control Board report on precursor chemicals, "Precursors and Chemicals Frequently used in the Illicit Manufacture of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances," at http://www.incb.org/f/tr/f00xi3/index.htm.
  19 "Coca Cultivation and Cocaine Processing: An Overview," US Drug Enforcement Agency, 1993.
  20 Annexe II at http://www.incb.org/f/tr/f00xi3/precursors_1999_5_1_fr.pdf.
  21 "Drug Manufacturing Gang Arrested," FBIS-TDD-95-037-L , 6 August 1995; Al-Nahar (Beirut), 6 August 1995.
  22 "The Threat of Meth," Environmental Health Perspectives 106 (4), April 1998. Some prison sentences for illegal transportation and dumping of hazardous wastes have been quite severe, up to 20 years or more, although it is difficult to determine how much the drug charges contribute to the overall sentences. See "Oklahoma Men Sentenced for Environmental and Drug Crimes," Environmental Protection Agency press release, 26 June 1998.
  23 See the information available through http://www.epa.gov/superfund/search/index.htm. For an overview of global methamphetamine production, see the report by the United Nations Drug Control Programme, "Amphetamine-Type Stimulants, A Global Review," at http://www.undcp.org/pdf/technical_series_1996-01-01_1.pdf.
  24 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, 1999, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, March 2000 (section on Chemical Controls) available at http://www.state.gov/www/global/narcotics_law/1999_narc_report/chemical99.html. Potassium permanganate is a general oxiding and bleaching chemical, used in manufacture of disinfectants, dyes, and reagents. It is used as a disinfectant for fishponds at a density of 2 ppm (5.4 lbs/acre ft). See http://ext.msstate.edu/pubs/is1265.htm.
  25 http://www.ita.doc.gov/td/industry/otea/Trade-Detail/Latest-December/Exports/28/280610.html
  26 J. Halwani, B.O. Baroudi, M. Wartel, (1999). "Nitrate contamination of the groundwater of the Akkar Plain in northern Lebanon," Sante 9 (4), pp. 219-223. K. Khair, et al. (1994). "The environmental impacts of humans on groundwater in Lebanon," Water, Air, & Soil Pollution 78 (1-2): 37-49. A. Acra, et al. (1997). "Supplementary water from private wells in Greater Beirut: A 1982 survey in retrospect," International Journal of Environmental Studies A & B 52(4): 321-334. O.S. Abu-Rizaiza, (1999). "Threats from groundwater table rise in urban areas in developing counties," Water International 24 (1), pp. 46-52.
  27 "Tripoli Coastline 'on brink of environmental disaster'," IPR Strategic Business Information Database, 20 July 2000. E. K. Lauritzen, (1998). "Emergency construction waste management," Safety Science 30 (1-2), pp. 45-53.
  28 "Exposure of illegal waste scandals," OTIS News, 20 December 1996, 6 (24): 4. The case involved 750 tons of waste, designated as plastic granules for recycling, shipped to Beirut from Germany.

2000 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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