In May, Morocco’s parliament approved a bill that legalizes the production of marijuana for medical and industrial use. The move has long been called for in the North African kingdom, which is a major producer of hashish – a drug produced from the extract of the cannabis plant, accounting for almost half of the world’s supply. In fact, Morocco is the source of the vast majority of the hashish smoked in Europe.

International demand for medical and industrial cannabis has grown in recent years, as countries around the world have begun to relax laws around the substance. This process has somewhat accelerated since the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted to remove cannabis from its list of the most dangerous drugs in December 2020. Morocco was the only country from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in support.

The new legislation (Bill 13.21) did not enjoy blanket support in Morocco, but it was backed by several key legislators, including the Prime Minister, Saad-Eddine El Othmani. It was passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives with 119 votes in support and 48 against.

A bureaucratic tsunami is set to follow the passing of the bill, as the Moroccan government prepares to regulate the entire cannabis supply chain, from growing to production, processing, and selling. The government will also be tasked with regulating the marketing of cannabis for medical and cosmetic uses and will oversee the production of hemp for industries such as textiles and paper.

Some half a million Moroccans live in regions where cannabis production is the primary industry.

Some half a million Moroccans live in regions where cannabis production is the primary industry and the trade in hashish has been deeply embedded in the culture of many rural regions for generations. Up until now, the industry has been dominated by illegal drug traffickers who have turned over colossal profits.

Production takes place primarily in the northern region of the Rif mountains, which has been called the hashish capital of the world. The epicenter of the Rif’s cannabis economy is the town of Ketama, around 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the picturesque city of Chefchaouen, which has long drawn large numbers of international tourists.

In the beautiful, cedar-dappled mountain valleys around Ketama, the cannabis trade is an open secret. State authorities are conspicuous by their absence and enormous farms and plantations stretch across the Rif as far as the eye can see. According to government figures, cannabis production in the Rif covers some 116,000 acres. While a huge area, this figure has significantly been reduced in recent times. In 2003, prior to government crackdowns on farms, well in excess of 300,000 acres were used for cannabis production.

Morocco cannabis law

Many Moroccan farmers believe that the new law will lead to a different kind of repression.

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Many farmers believe that the new law will lead to a different kind of repression. In other words, government regulation will mean a shift in the focus of law enforcement, which will now be tasked with ensuring that cannabis is not being used for illegal activity. The Rif has long been a region rife with political tension and protest and the state has seen tolerance of the cannabis trade as a way of cooling tensions, thus averting civil and political unrest.

The new legislation will likely necessitate more national law enforcement units being stationed in the Rif, which risks causing tensions to boil over. Over 30,000 people in the region are wanted for cannabis offenses and calls by farmers’ groups for an amnesty for all affected by these charges have gone unheeded. Many are concerned that active arrest warrants provide a pretext for state crackdowns on their communities.

The new legislation will likely necessitate more national law enforcement units being stationed in the Rif.

Such fears are not the only reason that a large proportion of the Rif’s cannabis farmers oppose Bill 13.21. For years, exploitation has been rife in the region, with a steady decline in wages and living standards for those who rely upon the cannabis trade. In presenting the legislation, Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit argued that Bill 13.21 would improve the lives of low-income farmers, assist in the fight against drug-smuggling networks, and help protect the environment (which suffers grave damage as a result of the unregulated and excessive farming techniques employed in illicit cannabis production).

Driss Benhima, a former director of the government-run Development Agency of Northern Morocco, said he hopes that moves towards decriminalization will also help mitigate “the toxic lack of confidence between cannabis farmers and national public institutions.” He cited this distrust as a major handicap to social, political, and economic development in the Rif.

There are those in the region who view the change to the law with excitement, seeing it as an opportunity to enter an exploding global market. However, despite the lofty goals expressed by Laftit and his colleagues, many farmers believe that the new law risks plunging them into even deeper poverty, insecurity, and danger. Farmers’ groups have been petitioning the government since Bill 13.21 was first proposed in March, many arguing that they were not sufficiently consulted on the new proposals.

In particular, some regard the new law as a threat to the livelihoods of smaller, traditional cannabis producers who do not have the resources to compete with the large companies that will seek to gain a controlling stake in the Rif’s newly decriminalized and regulated cannabis market. Other concerns relate purely to supply and demand. For instance, there is concern that the new law will lead to other regions, not traditionally linked to cannabis production, to enter the market and redirect revenue away from the communities that have controlled and relied upon the trade for generations.

Decriminalizing the cultivation of hashish could be of enormous economic benefit for Rif farmers.

For many, the solution to these problems would be for the law to go further and decriminalize cannabis for recreational use. Decriminalizing the cultivation of hashish, which is more lucrative than unprocessed marijuana, could be of enormous economic benefit for Rif farmers. A ton (1,000 kg) of cannabis can be processed into 12kg of hashish and sold for around US$3,500, whereas the same amount of cannabis, unprocessed and sold for industrial use, fetches only around one fifth of that amount.

Furthermore, a fully decriminalized and regulated market would once and for all remove from the hands of criminal gangs a cannabis economy estimated at between US$30 and $40 billion. This would greatly assist the state in tackling the myriad crimes and social problems that stem from the criminal underworld that cannabis prohibition has helped to create.

A decriminalized market for recreational cannabis would also help ensure fair wages, protect workers’ rights, and reduce exploitation of farmers, who currently find themselves at the whim of dealers who have the power to set ever lower prices.

Some Ketama farmers complained to Reuters that, where a decade ago a kilogram of hashish could be sold for 15,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$1,680), the price has fallen by a factor of six, to around 2,500 dirhams today. These farmers speak for many in the region who are angered by the new legislation, feeling that it was cooked up by politicians without consulting or considering the interests of those who work in the cannabis trade.

Nevertheless, full legalization or even decriminalization of cannabis for recreational use appears unlikely to come about any time soon. The question is set to be one of the many divisive issues in Morocco’s national elections, which take place later this year. As in the case of Bill 13.21, if change is to come, the incentive to implement it will emerge from international pressure, both political and economic.

According to several international agencies, such as the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Morocco is by far the largest supplier of illegal cannabis by-products (primarily hashish) to Europe, accounting for some 80 percent of all hashish smoked in the EU.

A 2019 report by New Frontier Data found that given its geographical proximity to Europe, “Morocco would be ideally positioned to reap a huge influx in investment toward the infrastructure necessary to serve its lucrative market.” Indeed, the Moroccan government is fully aware of the astronomical profits that would flow from decriminalizing and regulating cannabis sales to Europe and it may well be that, before long, this prize will simply be too big to ignore.