Morocco, long the world’s largest illicit producer of cannabis, is finally getting a legalized commercial cannabis industry, thanks to a law introduced by the otherwise conservative government. The new law is designed to daylight traditional small cannabis growers in the marginalized Rif Mountains.
But the program is geared toward the export market. It explicitly bars “recreational” use. And it remains to be seen whether there will be a meaningful relaxation of increasingly militarized cannabis enforcement.
Organic Bill 13.21, which legalizes cultivation and use of cannabis for medicinal and industrial purposes, was approved June 15 by Morocco’s House of Representatives, by a vote of 61 to 25. A week earlier, it passed the upper House of Councilors by a vote of 119 to 48.
The passage put an end to months of rancor in the Parliament, starting when Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani of the conservative Justice & Development Party (PJD) introduced the bill on March 11.
This was a radical break for a party that had long opposed any softening of the cannabis laws. The PJD cited a growing international consensus that the hardline policies have failed.
“The community is now increasingly aware that the pure repressive approach adopted by the global drug control system has limited alternative development programs and has not made it possible to resolve the economic, social and environmental problems encountered by rural producers of this plant,” the party said in a statement upon introduction of the bill.
Stealing the Cannabis Issue
Four years ago, opposition lawmakers from the Rif Mountains — then beset by a popular uprising — introduced a cannabis legalization bill, but Morocco’s political establishment quickly moved to quash it. This establishment is currently defined by the PJD, which has ruled since 2011, and the monarchy, with King Mohammed VI retaining much power — including the right to appoint or dismiss prime ministers.
With general elections scheduled for September 2021, there is a sense that conservative Prime Minister El Othmani is seeking to steal the cannabis issue from the opposition. But it has clearly cost him support within his own party. Many PJD parliamentarians joined with the Islamist bloc in voting against OB 13.21 in both houses. And when the bill was introduced in March, the PJD’s leading light in Parliament — former prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane – resigned from the party in protest.
Meetings in which El Othmani’s cabinet members tried to pitch lawmakers on the bill grew heated, local press reported. Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit emphasized that the bill does not decriminalize (much less legalize) the “recreational” use of cannabis. He portrayed legal cannabis as the key to lift the Rif region out of its economic isolation.
And indeed, here the government paradoxically had more support from its progressive and secularist opposition than its own bloc in Parliament.
Rep. Omar Balafrej of the Federation of the Democratic Left hailed the legalization measure as long overdue. “No development is possible without laws that adapt to reality. Since Morocco’s independence, this issue has had to be resolved,” he said.
And Moulay Hicham Mhajri of the Authenticity & Modernity Party (PAM) expressed exasperation at the intransigence of PJD lawmakers: “How can a majority party oppose a text adopted by the government?”
“Cannabis is all that grows here”
In the Rif Mountains — the rugged, remote and restive region that ethnically distinct (non-Arab) Berber farmers have long made Morocco’s hashish heartland — opinion seems to be divided on the new law. Among their concerns is the lack of provisions for expungement of past convictions or nullification of outstanding arrest warrants. Nor does the law explicitly legalize hashish production.
Most of all, the emphasis on export and the lack of any provision for a domestic adult-use market raises the fear that a few well-capitalized operations could come to dominate the legal market.
Farmer Mohamed El Mourabit in the mountain village of Ketama, Al Hoceïma province, told Reuters of his hopes that the new law will bring down the “wall of fear” in the region. “We are fed up with fear and secrecy,” he said. “We want a decent life.”
He emphasized that ecology as well as cultural heritage mandate the traditional cannabis economy. “We tried growing cereals but the…yield [was] not enough to live on. Cannabis is all that grows here.”
Political economy of kif and chira
Cannabis was officially outlawed by Moroccan authorities in 1954, but its cultivation still provides a livelihood for some 60,000 families, according to (probably low-balled) official estimates. The United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC) says that about 47,000 hectares (116,000 acres) of the Rif are devoted to cannabis. This is about a third the amount in 2003, thanks to vigorous government crackdowns in the intervening years. Nevertheless, according to the UNODC’s most recent annual World Drug Report, Morocco retained its status as the world’s top producer of illicit cannabis.
Cannabis within Morocco is generally consumed in the form of kif — the fine powder of THC-rich crystals shaken from the buds. Hashish, locally called chira, is basically kif concentrated and solidified with pressure, heating, and sometimes a solvent or binding agent — originally sweat from the hands of the hashish-makers, although today more often ethanol. This is the form used for illicit exports.
Morocco is the top source of hashish on the illicit market worldwide, and especially in Europe. Proceeds have been estimated at an annual $7 billion, making hashish the country’s largest source of foreign currency. Criminal networks and middle-men of course suck up most of these proceeds, but what makes it back to the Berber farmers of the Rif is critical to their economic survival.
In an attempt to head off licensed cannabis cultivation being dominated by highly capitalized agribusiness on the coastal plains (now producing olives, citrus and wine grapes), the new law limits production to six provinces, all in the Rif: Al Hoceïma, Chefchaouen, Ouezzane, Taounate, Larache and Tétouan.
Back from the brink
The 2017 popular uprising in the Rif appears to have been a turning point, when authorities realized that heavy-handed enforcement in the region was only fueling unrest.
In 2005, Moroccan authorities eradicated 15,160 hectares of cannabis, by official figures. In 2011, amid local protests related to the wider Arab Revolution, there were reports of helicopters spraying Rif villages with pesticide, ostensibly to wipe out cannabis crops — raising the specter of a convergence of drug enforcement and counterinsurgency, as seen in Colombia.
Morocco, fortunately, has retreated from this brink. According to the UNODC’s World Drug Report 2020, Morocco eradicated only 523 hectares in 2017, and none in 2018 (the most recent year for which figures are given). A constitutional reform in response to the protests in 2011 also granted greater rights to the Berbers, officially placing their language, Tamazight, on an equal footing with Arabic.
But a militarized crackdown on the smuggling routes has been escalating. Hardly a week goes by without reports of huge hashish hauls, usually by the Moroccan armed forces.
Morocco’s Royal Navy arrested three Spanish smugglers with a ton of hashish after intercepting their vessel off the northern Mediterranean port of Ksar al Saghir, Morocco World News reported June 9, in a typical recent case. The report cited official figures of 217 metric tons of cannabis seized in 2020.
On May 18 Morocco World News more ominously noted a seizure of 1.26 tons by troops of the General Directorate of National Security (DGSN) near the town of Laayoune, with two men said to be part of a “criminal network” arrested. The report does not mention that Laayoune is the regional capital of Western Sahara — a disputed territory occupied by Morocco, where a pro-independence movement has animated local protests and armed insurgency over the years.
Morocco seized Western Sahara after former colonial ruler Spain withdrew in 1975, initially dividing it with Mauritania until the latter withdrew in 1980. Today it has officially annexed the entire territory. However, only one country recognizes Morocco’s claim to the territory — the United States, thanks to a decision taken by the Trump administration. Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces have recently been beefing up their presence in Western Sahara in the supposed interest of intercepting drugs and other contraband — pointing to another case in which narcotics enforcement and counterinsurgency appear to coincide.
The cautious embrace of legal cannabis may represent a real turning point for Morocco. There is no doubt that the North African constitutional monarchy has taken a significant step forward with Organic Bill 13.21. But the progressive opposition forces that made the law possible in the first place will have to exercise vigilance to assure that it is applied with a true sense of equity and inclusion.
Bill Weinberg is an award-winning 30-year veteran journalist in the fields of human rights, ecology and drug policy. Formerly news editor at High Times magazine, he now produces the websites CounterVortex.org and Global Ganja Report.
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