The Middle East Channel

Morocco’s growing Cannabis debate

Cognizant of developments in the United States in Colorado and Washington state, Moroccan social media has been abuzz this summer with a seemingly unlikely possibility: the legalization of cannabis. Activists and politicians in Morocco are close to firming up a date later this month for the parliament to host a seminar on the economic implications of legalization. The powerful Party of Authenticity and Modernity will chair the daylong seminar. This has led some commentators to speculate that the move may even have the blessing of the monarchy.

Morocco regularly vies with Afghanistan for the title of the world's biggest producer of cannabis -- its output was recently estimated at nearly 40,000 tons annually -- yet open debate on the role of the plant in the country's economy remains infrequent. In recent years, despite improvements in production, both small farmers and big producers have seen their cannabis-related income plummet. 

Political moves to legalize cannabis are a recognition that Morocco's drug policy has failed. For decades, farmers in the Rif region in the north have been tacitly allowed to cultivate the herb as an escape from dire poverty. At the same time, occasional crackdowns and arbitrary detentions of growers ensured that the central state kept a firm grip on the region. This policy worked well for decades but is now beginning to unravel as profits fall and unrest rises.

During the late 1960s, technical advances meant that farmers could transform the raw product into resin (aka "hash") for export to the European market. When inexpensive Moroccan hash began to flow northwards in ever increasing quantities, European counter-cultural movements differentiated themselves from American pot-smoking hippies by mixing hash with tobacco and rolling it into joints. The new European hash culture spread rapidly due to its bare bones simplicity -- fancy implements like pipes and bongs were not needed. In the 1980s, the Moroccan cannabis business boomed as big producers and middlemen made fortunes, pouring their profits into luxury villas and ostentatious displays of wealth. By the 1990s, northern Morocco had become the hash capital of the world.

But the good times couldn't last. As part of the international war on drugs, Morocco came under pressure to crack down on cannabis cultivation. European Union coastguards stepped up their patrols looking for drug shipments from North Africa. There were even claims that Moroccan drug-money was financing terrorism, especially in response to the Madrid bombings in 2003. Once stemming the Moroccan drug trade could be rhetorically situated as part of President George W. Bush's Global War on Terror, the pressure on Morocco to eradicate the cannabis fields in the north became unbearable. 

Yet more crucial than geopolitics or government crackdowns, the all-important European market had begun to change. Evolving tastes played a part: in a world of designer drugs and legal highs, hash became increasingly uncool and prosaic. As cheap hash lost its cachet, sophisticated consumers switched to high-priced designer strains of pot. Rather than smelling like tar and looking like packaged mud, they had pleasing aromas, pretty buds, and catchy names like "purple haze."

Even more important than all these changes in consumer taste profiles, European drug gangs have cut net costs to consumers by growing their own weed in large-scale farms. For example, it is now estimated that 80 percent of cannabis consumed in the Britain is homegrown.

The decreased European demand for imported cannabis has meant trouble for farmers in Morocco. The risks and rewards of the trade were always unfairly split, with small farmers more exposed to fluctuations in price and police repression than wealthy middlemen. Complaints about the lack of state investment and systemic police corruption, combined with the zeitgeist of the "Arab Spring," led to large-scale protests in Morocco during 2011 and 2012. Although the outbursts have subsided, simmering discontent still mingles with sporadic local protests -- currently focused on the small town of Targuist in the central Rif. Falling yields and the government's unpopular eradication program formed a backdrop to the unrest as the protests spread to the heartland of cannabis country in Ketama in January.

The Moroccan government has recognized that whack-a-mole policing, by itself, can no longer deal with popular discontent. As part of the Moroccan strategy to insulate itself from the unrest plaguing its neighbors, the state appears to have switched tack -- now preferring to employ carrots as well as sticks to tighten its political grip over the restive north. To buttress these efforts, the supreme political authority in Morocco is clearly exploring the possibility of legislation to legalize cannabis. Legalization would boost tax revenue and prop up the economy of the region.

As early as May 2009, Fouad Ali el Himma, one of the king's closest confidants, called for a national debate on cannabis and an end to arbitrary detention of its growers. Potentially influenced by trends in places like California, Himma argued that cannabis should be rebranded as a traditional Moroccan herbal palliative rather than an illegal drug. These ideas are now gaining momentum with expressions of interest from virtually all the major Moroccan political parties. Even the Islamist Party of Justice and Development has cautiously welcomed the draft proposals -- presumably because the party is mindful that it now occupies a minority presence in the cabinet and could benefit from going with the flow.

The real obstacle to implementation may lie with the policy's vulnerability to political attack. The Moroccan proposal has caused widespread derision throughout the region. Across North Africa cannabis remains criminalized. Other than a small and harassed pro-legalization movement in Tunisia, there is no trend toward legalization elsewhere in North Africa. Already, external opponents have begun using the prospect of legalization in Morocco as a stick with which to beat the monarchy, recycling well-worn stereotypes of the country as a destabilizing "haven for drug traffickers."

Such accusations are unfair. In reality, the Moroccan draft proposals are modest, and reflect a growing international consensus calling for partial legalization. A Gallup poll in October showed for the first time that a majority of Americans favor the legalization of cannabis. Even before Washington and Colorado legalized the drug via referendum in 2012, the U.S. precedent of legalizing medicinal use and channeling supply into licensed dispensaries was beginning to change perception of the issue by various world governments.

In Morocco, the discussion has focused on the possible creation of a state monopoly on the sale of cannabis for industrial and medical purposes only. The use of cannabis as hemp in textiles, oil, fuel, and food has been licensed in European countries for decades. Meanwhile, the medical use of cannabis has been legalized in several countries, including Spain, Canada, and a handful of U.S. states. The draft laws being floated in Morocco would therefore fit well within evolving international norms, by initially restricting legalization to industrial and medical uses only. Recreational users may have to wait a little longer before they can smoke in peace, but as developments in the United States have revealed, allowing legalization for medicinal use often leads to increased tolerance of recreational use and difficulties in policing non-medicinal users.

With tourism and the economy in general suffering as a result of twin scourges of the Arab Spring and the global recession, the Moroccan legislators' plan may be able to kill two birds while getting stoned.

James Roslington is a PhD candidate in North African history at the University of Cambridge. His current research relates to Morocco's Rif Mountains. Jason Pack is the editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave Macmillan, June 2013). President of Libya-Analysis.com, his articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, The Guardian, The Spectator, and Foreign Policy Magazine.

ABDELHAK SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

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