Cannabis in Morocco: a bill that raises controversy among farmers
In Morocco’s impoverished central Rif mountains, hemp farmer Mohamed Lamrabet hopes a bill to legalize the plant’s medical and industrial uses will break down what he calls the “wall of fear” surrounding farmers caught between the triad of poverty, drug traffickers, and the law.
Last week, the government approved a bill allowing the cultivation, export, and domestic use of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes.
Parliament is likely to ratify it, although there are differences of opinion about it within the largest party in the ruling coalition.
The bill aims to improve the situation for farmers in the countryside, who have experienced unrest and have been known to grow cannabis for decades, in addition to taking advantage of the booming international market for legal hemp.
However, the bill has sparked controversy and division of opinion among rural farmers, who fear it will not help them cope with years of declining incomes or get rid of what they see as “temporary release.”
In the north of Morocco, cannabis is cultivated as a major economic activity. It has been grown openly and smoked for generations after being mixed with tobacco in long traditional tubes connected to pottery vessels known locally as “essebsi.
In a village on the outskirts of Kutama, workers hear drums beating hemp leaves and sifting them through soft cloth sieves before processing and turning them into hashish, while farms plow the land with mules.
As he stands by a hut with a rusty iron roof, the farmer said, “We tried to grow grain, but the time and production were not enough for us to live on. Hemp is all that grows here.”
The United Nations Agency on Drugs and Crime says that about 47,000 hectares of the Rif mountains are devoted to cannabis production, about a third of the area in 2003 after government campaigns. The agency adds that “Morocco” is still among the largest exporters of illegal cannabis in the world.
As the road climbs in an impervious direction, mountains and cedar-topped terraces replace landscapes of fertile olive groves and grain fields. Despite its striking beauty, there is no tourism in the area.
The absence of state authority was evident near Kutama, when two young men honked their car horns, stopping traffic, in order to put hashish on sale.
In a littered public park, one resident said that much local youth wanted to cross into Spain despite the risks of the journey.
There are about 30,000 people in the Kutama area who are called in by police for committing cannabis-related crimes.
“I was arrested for transporting homemade marijuana to a smuggler,” said a farmer spreading seeds in his field.
Al Hoceima, one of the largest cities in the Rif region, witnessed protests against economic and social conditions in 2016-2017.
The state party has long turned a blind eye to cannabis production in the region as a means of maintaining social peace.
Al-Murabit fears the new law will also grow hemp in more fertile areas. “We want the cultivation of weed to be limited to its historical areas,” he said.
Along rural roads, tractors and other equipment and fertilizer to fertilize fields are being prepared before planting this year’s crop.
Prices have fallen sharply in recent years with the emergence of stronger, more productive strains.
Ten years ago, locals say, a farmer could sell a kilo of hashish for 15,000 dirhams (or $1,670), but now he sells it for only 2,500 dirhams.
“It’s the drug dealers who set the price,” said the farmer, who plows his land with mules.
If cannabis production is not allowed in the “legal trade”, their income will be further damaged. The ultimate unprocessed hemp yields $700 for industrial use. The same amount produces 12 kilograms of cannabis, worth $3,340.
Saleh lakhbash, a university student and son of a local farmer, said officials drafted the bill “in air-conditioned rooms without consulting farmers” and believes the government should instead invest in building an alternative economy for the region.
“Cannabis is the curse that has marginalized us for nearly 80 years,” he added, standing among the angry farmers nodding their heads.