Verdun, Beirut 2016; photo credit: Zakaria Jaber.

Lebanese drug laws mimic American policies on light drugs

Commotion echoes off the plain white walls in a brightly lit room with cold marble floors as rough looking men with guns and badges on their shoulders zip up and down the hallways, some dressed plainly, others in police uniforms. Men are seen talking to up to three people at once as they shuffle through papers, whispering into each other’s ears when civilians are present. Loved ones of captured felons nervously wait outside, the grief and worry evident in their eyes and the creases of their faces, while others are told to wait for their turn in the interrogation rooms.

On the third floor of the Hubaish building, the floor dedicated to illegal drug-related crimes, a high ranking officer jokes about someone’s shaggy hair.

“We should make you do a drug test,” said the officer, “You look like a junkie.”

The Process of Apprehension and Interrogation

The Lebanese police force identifies and apprehends suspects based on their looks and style, as stated by Skoun’s more than 50 gathered testimonies of drug users. Many people are arrested and interrogated simply because they “look like junkies.”

Captain Samer Maarouf, who is stationed at Hubaish, denied mistreatment when asked about torture accusations made by previous detainees.

“The police force wholeheartedly believes in human rights,” he said. “No torture or beating of any kind happens here. The only time we use violence is when they resist arrest, but never during interrogation. If they are hit [during interrogation], we get them doctors to take care of them.”

This raises the question as to why someone would be hit during interrogation for whatever reason, and contradicts his previous statement. Furthermore, the captain later expressed how overwhelmed and underfunded the police force is, which would make it hard to provide complete rights and medical services, as was stated previously.

“We don’t have any kind underground interrogation rooms,” said the Captain as he sat in his office, “Where you are sitting now is where the questioning happens.”

Many people casually make their way in and out of the office without knocking, either to talk to someone or just passing through.

Karim Nammour, a lawyer at Legal Agenda, who has worked with several victims of intensive interrogation, disagrees with this notion. According to his observation, interrogation happens in a special room with cameras. During interrogation, however, officers could simply take suspects out into the unsupervised hallway with no cameras, have their way, and bring them back in as mentioned by Nammour. While this is not to say that it happens for sure, having a blindspot gives leeway for illicit activity.

Nammour also contemplates that  suspects are kept detained for so long to let their bruises, acquired during intensive interrogation, heal, as to leave no proof of mistreatment on the prisoner’s body. Captain Maarouf, however, says that the reason is simply because other places are overwhelmed with prisoners, and there is simply nowhere else to keep them.

When semi-casually asking a lower ranking officer in Hubaish station why some dealers are left alone while smaller ones are still arrested, he simply said it was because Hezbollah protects them as if it was common knowledge. Nammour and the Captain had distinctly different responses to that statement.

“This is simply not true” said Captain Maarouf, “That officer was simply speaking his unfounded opinion. Every known drug dealer, big or small, is on our list and will be arrested eventually.”

“This is not untrue, but it’s inaccurate,” Nammour said on the other hand,“Hezbollah are not the only ones. Anyone with power in the government is involved in this thing. Anyone who controls or owns land or has political power has a certain degree of involvement in the drug war.”

Nammour then explained why the police still focus on smaller dealers and users.

The Criminalization of Light Drugs 

“Farmers, dealers, and users, these are the only people that the police can apprehend. Continuing the arrests of these people [is] to [make it] seem as if they are doing their jobs, and get the politicians in charge of these policies to show recorded progress to their American supporters and benefactors.”

However, this is not to say that all members of law enforcement are involved in any kind of corruption, but there is simply nothing more they can do from their current rank aside from fulfill their duties and carry out their orders. Orders such as to investigate certain areas and arrest those whom they suspect and are tipped off about.

This point is reiterated by Tatyana Sleiman, head of Development & Fundraising at Skoun.

There is no point of this except that number of users arrested is the law enforcement’s metric that they are actually doing their job. To us, however, the metric’s the failure to control drugs is best illustrated by the fact that 78% of the total number of arrest constitute drug users, and not dealer and traffickers.”

Karim Nammour explained that the criminalization of light drugs such as Hash is an attempt at enforcing American-founded policies, and giving in to foreign pressures for financial and political benefits.

“The issue is in the criminalization, not legalization,” Nammour said, going on to describe the important rule in criminal philosophy named the “The Iron Law of Prohibition.”

This rule simply states that criminalizing light substances, such as hashish, only makes acquiring harder, more dangerous substances such as heroin or cocaine much easier, as they are more powerful and need less agriculture to create, and are also easier to transport.

According to Nammour, placing light drugs in the same league as heavy ones only criminalizes minor offenders, and drains the already scarce resources of law enforcement.

In Nammour’s words, the Lebanese law enforcement place Hashish in an even higher league of danger than cocaine. Since cocaine is the drug of the rich, and hashish is proven to be less harmful than cocaine, this makes it an issue of class as much as it does of law. The main purpose of punishment of crime is to reduce harm, and the criminalization of light drugs is more harmful than helpful and effective.